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The University of Southampton
Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Mediterranean refugee crisis: ambiguity in maritime law

Published: 5 May 2016
Mediterranean refugee crisis

International maritime law needs to be clearer regarding how the international community should respond to dangerous migration by sea, as highlighted by an event held at the University of Southampton.

Speakers representing academia, global rescue organisations and legal institutes spoke of the inadequate international response to the current crisis in the Mediterranean – different views were expressed concerning the need to develop further the maritime conventions that address saving those who are in distress at sea.

The workshop, entitled Boat People: Some Legal and Practical Considerations relating to Migration by Sea, considered the legal and ethical obligations of rescuing refugees and migrants, as well as the implications for commercial shipping companies. In accordance with international maritime law, anyone in danger or distress at sea must be rescued, regardless of their origin or reasons for travel, and taken to a place of safety.

But because certain terms are subjective and undefined in relevant law, the actual legal requirements are ambiguous.

The terms ‘distress at sea’ and ‘a place of safety’, for example, could be interpreted in different ways, and the latter is coupled with the uncertainty regarding disembarkation of survivors. Is it sufficient to deliver the passengers to an intermediary destination – such as another vessel or the closest port – or is this stipulation only satisfied when the migrants are taken to a port where they can be sure of proper medical attention and asylum? And what are the obligations of countries receiving migrants, with regard to providing healthcare?

The lack of legal clarity in these areas may hinder search and rescue efforts. Some delegates proposed that the current legal framework is therefore not sufficient for dealing with the Mediterranean migrant crisis and should be reviewed.

Ainhoa Campas Velasco, co-organiser and PhD student with the University’s Institute of Maritime Law, says, ”There was a general consensus that the international response to the current crisis in the Mediterranean is inadequate, both from a prevention and a reaction standpoint. But while the common ground was that the problem lies more with the insufficient search and rescue capacity at sea and the uncertainty regarding disembarkation of survivors, different views were presented as to the need of further developments in the legal framework.”

Professor Mikis Tsimplis, Deputy Director of the University’s Southampton Marine & Maritime Institute and Director of the Institute of Maritime Law, says, “When people are in danger of drowning there is only one option: to assist them. However from the moment they are rescued from the immediate physical danger, what is the most appropriate way of dealing with them is far from clear.”

Representatives of the University of Southampton, the International Maritime Rescue Federation, the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, the International Chamber of Shipping and others were present at the workshop, which took place in September 2015.

For further information on the workshop discussions, see here and here.


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