SAR Matters - The Ongoing Crisis of Migrant SAR

Posted in General News

photo: MOAS.EU/Jason Florio

This column provides a forum for LIFE LINE readers worldwide to contribute to debate on any SAR issue. Have a look at previous discussions in our Newsletter Archive: every LIFE LINE since 2010 is available there for free download. You can join in the debate by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. It’s good to talk!

In this edition we return to the ongoing crisis of migrant SAR.

The rescue of migrants and asylum-seekers at sea in unseaworthy vessels and dangerous conditions has become perhaps the greatest SAR challenge of our time.

Tens of thousands of people are moving across the Mediterranean, fleeing poverty or fear and seeking safety or simply a better life in Europe. Thousands are dying in the attempt. People are trying to cross other seas too: Bangladeshis, and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, looking for work or escaping persecution, are facing terrible conditions in the eastern Indian Ocean, for example.sarboat

The SAR challenges are manifold. The number of people needing rescue is obviously a huge difficulty: these are multiple mass rescue operations.

The people at risk are not equipped for survival at sea: their rescue is therefore more urgent. For both these reasons merchant ships are essential to the rescue effort, for despite the extra SAR units now helping out – which we will turn to shortly – there are not enough available. We need passing ships to help; but the pressures on ships’ crews and operators are immense, under-reported, and inadequately addressed by the authorities. We are relying on them too much.

Perhaps most challenging of all, however, is the fact that this is not a problem that can be solved at sea. It can only be resolved at source, ashore. Something must be done – in reality, a large number of different things must be done – to stop people risking their lives in this way.

The most basic principle of maritime SAR is that people in distress at sea should be rescued whenever possible. It should not matter who they are or how they came to be there.

Yet it would be disingenuous to argue that migrants and asylum-seekers are the same as other rescued people. They are more difficult to land.

floatSome States take a hard line. Some divert ‘migrant’ boats to other countries. Some are said to be simply sending them back out to sea. Some argue that they bear no responsibility. Some, on the other hand, continue to accept their humanitarian and legal responsibilities, and save thousands of lives.

The IMRF salutes the latter – but, while the flows continue, the victims and their would-be rescuers remain at risk. And so do some fundamental SAR principles. Just as we need passing ships to help pick people up, we need States to accept their responsibility to provide places of safety. The two things together are what ‘rescue’ means.

The IMRF urges the international community to address the wider issues urgently, so that the pressure on SAR authorities and responders – merchant shipping in particular – can be relieved, and the threats now visible to the basic principles of SAR at sea can be averted. Fundamentally, there are thousands of people in distress. What caused it, and what should be done with them after they have been rescued, are separate arguments. SAR – from retrieval to delivery to places of safety – stands alone, and its principles must be staunchly defended.

Some of these issues were addressed at our World Maritime Rescue Congress in June. Sumbul Rizvi, representing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Konstantinos Mitragas of the Hellenic Rescue Team spoke about the matter, from the international and a SAR organisation’s perspectives.

Martin Xuereb of MOAS gave a keynote address.

Congress delegates suggested that IMRF’s larger member organisations could support the Mediterranean rescue effort, and volunteer SAR organisations in the region in particular. This is now happening, in various ways.

For example in June Matthew Fader, of the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS) – a newly elected IMRF Trustee and also a registered nurse specialising in pre-hospital emergency medicine – joined a rescue operation initiated by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and, aboard Bourbon Argos, helped rescue over 1,200 people in a period of two weeks.

Many of those rescued were in poor condition before they set out, and needed extensive medical treatment after being rescued. Bourbon Argos has a medical clinic with emergency room aboard, staffed by experienced nurses and doctors around the clock; for transfer to places of safety in Italy can take over 48 hours. SSRS contributed expertise in mass rescue, SAR methods, and recovery of people from the water, and supported medical evacuation from boats containing up to 400 men, women and children.

Rikke Lind (right) with RS crew and
Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg

Redningsselskapet (RS: the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue) is another IMRF Member which is contributing to the SAR effort in the Mediterranean.

The RS rescue vessel Peter Henry Von Koss has been assigned an operating area between Greece and Turkey as part of the European Union’s ‘Operation Poseidon’. The vessel is manned by RS crews, Norwegian police and representatives of the Greek authorities. She made her first rescue on 29 July, picking up 14 Syrians whose rubber boat foundered as they tried to make the crossing.

"We have been working to make the Norwegian coast safer for 125 years, and now we are taking part in an operation outside Norway for the first time,” says Rikke Lind, Secretary General of RS and also a newly-elected IMRF Trustee. “We are pleased to accept this new responsibility."

Photo at the Top: MOAS.EU/Jason Florio

Contact Info

International Maritime Rescue Federation
50 Allardice Street
AB39 2RA
United Kingdom

Telephone: +44 (0) 1569 767405

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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