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Common questions about sea rescue

Under international maritime law, rescuing people in distress at sea is an obligation.

What does sea rescue mean and who is responsible for it?

“Distress at sea means there is a reasonable belief that a ship or persons on it are threatened by a serious and imminent danger and cannot reach safety without outside assistance.  (…)
The duty to rescue at sea is an unconditional duty that is linked solely to the need for protection of people in distress at sea.”

Sea rescue is part of customary international law and is explicitly regulated in international maritime law. All captains are obliged to assist people in distress as quickly as possible; this applies to state, commercial1 and private shipping.

1 Cargo ships played a significant role in sea rescue in the early days of increasing number of refugee crossings. For various reasons (no medical equipment, too high side decks, no room for accommodation on the ship), however, they are not suitable for salvage, acute care and the transport of many people.

Why are private non-profit ships of NGOs operating in the Mediterranean?

State and international missions in the Mediterranean Sea have been discontinued in recent years (Mare Nostrum 2014, Triton 2018) or are almost exclusively focused on border security and fighting smugglers instead of rescue operations (Sophia), as the participating German armed forces emphasise on their website.2

In the past, rescue operations in the Mediterranean were carried out by a wide variety of vessels: These included merchant ships, fishing boats, state vessels of the coast guard or international operations of the EU mission EUNAVFOR MED, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
With the termination of governmental and international missions, the rescue falls back on commercial shipping and NGOs.

2 https://www.bundeswehr.de/de/einsaetze-bundeswehr/abgeschlossene-einsaetze-der-bundeswehr/eunavfor-med-operation-sophia

Why are the rescued refugees not returned to Libya, from where they started?

Libya is the most important transit country for people from African countries fleeing to Europe via the Mediterranean. However, Libya has not been governed by the rule of law for years. There is no functioning government and large parts of the country are under the control of militias.
Refugees from African states who have to cross through Libya are even more threatened there. According to numerous media reports and expert assessments by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they are often subjected to torture, rape, mistreatment and enslavement on the escape route and in the detention centres there.
When civilian sea rescue missions are ordered or forced by the Libyan command centre to hand over previously rescued people to the Libyan coast guard against their will, or when refugee boats are harassed and towed back by Libyan forces at sea, this constitutes so-called push-backs and thus violations of the ban on expulsion (non-refoulement principle).
Based, inter alia, on Article 33 of the Geneva Refugee Convention, these are clearly unlawful.3 This judgment not only concerns Italy, which was sentenced at the time, but also the treatment of refugees by other European states, as well as the European border and coast guard agency Frontex.

3 https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.pdf 

Why not leave the sea rescue to the Libyan coast guard, who receive money and equipment from the EU for this purpose?

Oceans around the world are divided into so-called Search and Rescue Zones, or SAR for short. Rescue operations are usually based on an emergency call that is relayed to the nearest ship by an SAR rescue control centre. This also applies to civilian rescue vessels. Up to now, the SAR control centre in Rome has decided which ship rescues where in the Mediterranean and has also involved the NGO ships.

The EU, and Italy in particular, no longer want to rescue in the Mediterranean Sea themselves. For this reason, Italy and the EU have been equipping Libya’s coast guard since 2016. Since June 2018, Libya has had its own SAR zone along the Libyan Mediterranean coast and has announced that it fulfils all the conditions for adopting the SAR. Italy has provided the Libyan coast guard with twelve additional vessels. The EU is supporting Libya with know-how and money.4

Sea rescue organisations and an expert opinion of the Scientific Service of the German Bundestag (WD 2 -3000/053/17) critically point out that the established Libyan Sea Rescue Command Centre is for the time being not able to properly coordinate rescue missions. It cannot be ruled out that within the framework of the build-up of the Libyan Coastal and Border Guard a great deal of money will flow to Libyan militias that control trade routes, border stations, intersections and detention centres.5

4 https://netzpolitik.org/2018/eu-finanziert-rauswurf-von-seenotrettern-im-mittelmeer/

5 Micaleff, Mark (2017): The Human Conveyor Belt: trends in human trafficking and smuggling in post-revolution Libya. Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Geneva, Switzerland

Doesn’t sea rescue create new incentives for mass flight migration across the Mediterranean (pull factor for migration)?

A flight across the Mediterranean is usually the last dangerous stage of a long journey. First, money has to be raised to buy a passage. Many people who have had to flee have already been travelling for months and years on unsafe escape routes: within their own country (as so-called internally displaced persons, or IDPs for short), through transit countries with large desert areas, in coastal waiting areas and “camps” in Libya or Morocco. They are thus long since no longer in their countries of origin and cannot simply return there. The crossing is thus not the result of supposed “incentive structures”, but the only remaining route.

Where does the erroneous claim come from that civilian sea rescuers cooperate (at least covertly and indirectly) with the tugboats by “taking over” the recovery of (unseaworthy) boats shortly behind the coast?

As a central source for the assertion of direct cooperation between tugboats and NGOs, the media repeatedly refer to a publication (Risk Analysis for 2017) by Frontex.6 Although the study makes a critical assessment of sea rescue in general, it problematises the entire system of sea rescue, i.e. all actors in their function for perfidious and criminal trafficking strategies, it provides no indications of illegal cooperation between NGOs and traffickers. Nor is there any evidence for the accusations and suspicions raised by the Italian prosecution against members of the IUVENTA crew.

The traffickers are not concerned with guaranteeing safe passage, but primarily with making maximum profit from the refugees’ plight. In this respect, they have no reasonable interest whatsoever in “communicating” with civilian rescue missions, especially since they run the risk of being discovered and exposed. It is true, however, that refugees are sent out to sea unknowingly by traffickers, often in unfit and dilapidated boats, and get into distress shortly after leaving the Libyan coast. Often the boats are overcrowded and abandoned with too little fuel and drinking water. A crossing is therefore very risky from the outset and the death of many passengers is tacitly accepted by the traffickers.

6 https://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annual_Risk_Analysis_2017.pdf, p. 32.

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