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In this edition we consider some of the international legislation underpinning SAR.


Migrant Rescue at Sea: The Legal Context

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 risking their lives in sea crossings to escape war, abuse or poverty has aroused strong responses, from people wanting to help the displaced, and people wanting to stem the tide. According to news reports it also seems to have confused some would-be rescuers, uncertain of their legal position.

Let’s set the record straight.

The IMRF, coordinating the work of its SAR organisation members in support of the relevant SAR authorities in the region, has noted with concern recent reports that some would-be rescuers may have been deterred from helping people in distress because they are worried about possible legal action by local authorities seeking to counter trafficking activity.

Such concerns are misplaced. International maritime law in respect of rescue at sea is clear.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS – Article 98) and the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS – Chapter V Regulation 33) 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.

‘Distress’ is defined in common-sense terms in the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. People should be considered in need of rescue if “there is a reasonable certainty that [they are] threatened by grave and imminent danger”. The SAR Convention also requires States which are Parties to it 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 is important to recognise that the rescue of people in distress is a duty placed on nearly everyone at sea. It 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.

It is also important to emphasise that we are talking here about 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 is 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.

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