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Migrant Rescue at Sea: The Legal Context

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The ongoing migrant crisis across the Mediterranean region continues to cause huge humanitarian, border control, and maritime SAR challenges. The plight of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war, abuse or poverty and risking their lives, in sea crossings particularly, has aroused strong responses, from people wanting to help the displaced, and people wanting to stem the tide.

The IMRF is coordinating the work of its SAR organisation members in support of the relevant SAR authorities in the region. Our common aim is to provide properly coordinated and properly trained and equipped units where they are most needed.

Bruce Reid, IMRF’s Chief Executive Officer, says: “Great work is being done by professional rescue crews from all over Europe, coordinated by our friends in the Italian and Hellenic Coast Guards, with the assistance too of SAR colleagues in Malta and Turkey.

“But we are concerned by reports of less well-prepared responses at sea, by people whose good intentions are undoubted but who may not fully understand the procedures internationally agreed for maritime SAR – procedures which make a well-tried system work efficiently, to save more lives.”3605521 2048 1152

The IMRF has noted with particular concern recent reports that some would-be rescuers do not fully understand the legal context of rescue at sea, and may have been deterred from helping people in distress by concerns about possible legal action by local authorities seeking to counter trafficking activity.

Such concerns are misplaced, says Bruce. International maritime law in respect of rescue at sea is clear. “It’s important to recognise that rescue of people in distress is a duty placed on everyone at sea. That applies whether in territorial or international waters, and regardless of the legal status of the people in distress or the circumstances in which they are found.”

All vessels at sea (with certain very specific exceptions such as warships, which are nevertheless encouraged to comply) must try to rescue people in distress if it is reasonably safe for them to do so, wherever they may be. ‘Distress’ is defined in common-sense terms: people should be considered in need of rescue if “there is a reasonable certainty that [they are] threatened by grave and imminent danger”, according to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue – the ‘SAR Convention’.

States which are Parties to the SAR Convention are required to establish SAR services and to assist in rescue, including enabling vessels to land rescued people at places of safety. Anyone involved in SAR at sea should report to the relevant Rescue Coordination Centre, who will help them as necessary.

“It’s important too,” says Bruce, “To emphasise that we are talking about rescuing people in distress here – people who will die if not rescued. This is different to highly important but less immediately urgent humanitarian responses, where lives are not imminently at risk. And it’s different to border control issues, too. SAR takes place within that broader context, of course – and the IMRF understands that the overall situation is complex. But SAR is simple in principle, and its procedures are established in international law. If people are in distress at sea they must be rescued if possible, and ‘rescue’ includes being brought to a place of safety. The IMRF urges all concerned to find solutions to the wider issues, and to enable the maritime SAR services to do their lifesaving work.”

The key international instruments as regards obligations and procedures in maritime distress cases are the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and SAR Conventions.

229a9000 6c3b 4556 8865 eed3de02791f main imageArticle 98 of UNCLOS states (in part) that:

“Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers, to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost, [and] to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him [...]

“Every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighbouring States for this purpose.”

The SOLAS Convention covers ‘Distress situations: obligations and procedures’ in Chapter V Regulation 33 – which, with a few specific exemptions, applies to all vessels at sea. Regulation 33 states (in part) that:

“The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found. If the ship receiving the distress alert is unable or, in the special circumstances of the case, considers it unreasonable or unnecessary to proceed to their assistance, the master must enter in the log-book the reason for failing to proceed to the assistance of the persons in distress, taking into account the recommendation of the Organization to inform the appropriate search and rescue service accordingly.

“Contracting Governments shall coordinate and cooperate to ensure that masters of ships providing assistance by embarking persons in distress at sea are released from their obligations with minimum further deviation from the ships' intended voyage, provided that releasing the master of the ship from the obligations under the current regulation does not further endanger the safety of life at sea. The Contracting Government responsible for the search and rescue region in which such assistance is rendered shall exercise primary responsibility for ensuring such coordination and cooperation occurs, so that survivors assisted are disembarked from the assisting ship and delivered to a place of safety, taking into account the particular circumstances of the case and guidelines developed by the Organization. In these cases the relevant Contracting Governments shall arrange for such disembarkation to be effected as soon as reasonably practicable.”

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