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Search and rescue at sea: a legal obligation?

Event information

START DATE 8 June 2016
START TIME 09:00am

The Barn, Middlesex University, The Burroughs, London NW4 4BT

END DATE 8 June 2016
END TIME 06:00pm

Humanitarian and legal perspectives on the ‘Refugee Crisis’

The context

Between January and May 2016, over 150,000 migrants crossed the Aegean sea to reach Europe, mostly escaping the war in Syria. In the same period, nearly 30,000 people reached the Italian shores through the central Mediterranean route. The majority of them flee their countries because of war, conflict or persecutions. Many of the migrants, who, risking their lives, undertook an extremely dangerous journey to look for a better life in Europe or to get international protection, died because they were not rescued in time. The EU member states are bound by international and EU law to assist and protect them.

The EU member states carry out external sea borders surveillance operations aimed at preventing unauthorized border crossing. During such operations, they may intercept or rescue persons. The International Chamber of Shipping reported that the merchant vessels rescued around 40,000 people during 2014. This number increased significantly during 2015. More than 1,000 merchant ships have assisted migrant rescue operations since the crisis began to escalate and helped rescuing over 15,200 people in 2015. According to Frontex, their vessels rescued 150,000 lives in the Mediterranean Sea (59,000 in Italy and 91,000 in Greece).

Amongst other legal instruments, the International Convention on Salvage 1989 imposes a positive obligation on contracting states (EU members states included) to render assistance to any person in danger of being lost at sea. EU member states have also further positive obligations under international and EU law in order to ensure the safety of those seeking international protection and to prevent loss of life at sea.

The current dialogue on the issue so far offers lengthy press releases, shocking coffin photographs and an estimate of the number of people drowning in an attempt to reach safety. Tearful press obituaries and background policy analysis as to the reasons why this situation is occurring complete the picture of the ongoing debate at present. However, what is not heard so far is the voice of law: what are the obligations of the EU, its member states, and other neighbouring countries towards the migrants attempting this risky journey? And importantly, are there any legal steps that can be taken in order to help eliminate deaths in the Mediterranean?

The event and its aims

Middlesex University (London), the Italian legal clinic CLEDU (Clinica Legale per i Diritti Umani) and the UK legal organisation AIRE Centre (Advice on Individual Rights in Europe) are working together to take forward this debate by holding a roundtable on the positive legal obligations of EU member states under international maritime law, EU law and national law towards migrants, asylum seekers and persons in distress at sea.

A round-table will take place in London, at Middlesex University, on 8 June 2016, bringing together European experts on the subject. It will include a thorough analysis of relevant rules and instruments of international maritime law adopted by EU member states, as well as a discussion of their different interpretations and implementations. The event aims to lead to a common, informed position paper, outlining the legal obligations of different stakeholders when dealing with migrants at sea.

The event is part of the ‘Migration at Middlesex’ 2016 seminar series and funded within the ‘impact strategy’ of Middlesex University research project ‘EVI-MED – Constructing an Evidence Base of Contemporary Mediterranean Migrations’.

To download the full programme click here.


Giorgia Bevilacqua, Centre of Excellence on Migrants’ Rights in the Mediterranean

Jean Monnet, Centre of Excellence on Migrants’ Rights in the Mediterranean

Brad Blitz, Middlesex University

Elena Consiglio, CLEDU / University of Palermo

Anthony Cullen, Middlesex University

Alessio D’Angelo, Middlesex University

Ian Greatbatch, Kingston University

Roberta Greco, Saccucci Fares & Partners

Eleonore Kofman, Middlesex University

Nuala Mole, AIRE Centre

Markella Papadouli, AIRE Centre

Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo CLEDU / University of Palermo

Helena Wray, Middlesex University.


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