Written by Anja Radjenovic,

© Nightman1965 / Adobe Stock

International law imposes an obligation to render assistance to persons and ships in distress at sea, which must be provided regardless of the persons’ nationality or status or the circumstances in which they are found. These rules have to be applied without prejudice to the obligations deriving from international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including in particular the prohibition of refoulement.

Search and rescue (SAR) and disembarkation activities of EU Member States are currently not covered by a common EU legal framework, except for those activities carried out in the context of Frontex-led joint operations at sea.

In recent years, a significant proportion of migrants and asylum-seekers in distress at sea have been rescued by EU naval operations, EU agencies and non-governmental organisations in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, over the last couple of years, the Mediterranean Sea has also been the backdrop for the largest number of casualties and missing people.

Lack of coordination in search and rescue activities, solitary action by individual countries and criminalisation of non-governmental organisations active in SAR in the Mediterranean lead to migrants being forced to stay for several days and sometimes weeks on boats. EU Member States and EU agencies (Frontex) have also been accused of pushbacks of asylum-seekers and other migrants to the high seas and towards Libya and Turkey.

Individual actors dealing with boats of migrants have been a subject of strong criticism and legal action. Their accountability is, however, not always clear, the reason being varied application and interpretation of different bodies of international law. One solution, proposed by academics, could be the harmonisation of the fragmented legal regime for maritime interceptions.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Search and rescue in the Mediterranean‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Listen to policy podcast ‘Search and rescue in the Mediterranean’ on YouTube.