Search and rescue efforts for Mediterranean migrants

Briefing 24-10-2022

International law imposes an obligation to render assistance to people 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 joint operations at sea led by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). 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 (NGOs) in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, over the past couple of years, the Mediterranean Sea has also been the backdrop for the largest number of casualties and missing people. As of October 2022, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the total number of dead or missing in the Mediterranean in 2022 amounts to more than 1 200. Lack of coordination in SAR activities, solitary action by individual countries and criminalisation of NGOs active in SAR in the Mediterranean led 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 full of migrants have been the 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. This updates and expands a January 2021 EPRS briefing written by Anja Radjenovic.