04.03.2019 – 12:14
To the rescue - the legal situation in cases of maritime emergencies
Several main routes of migration into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East lead through the Mediterranean. Time and again emergency situations take place on the open water, for instance when vessels overcrowded with migrants capsize and sink. Anyone in distress at sea must be rescued. It's a duty that binds both government and private vessels. It is a result both of maritime tradition and the unwritten international customary law, according to the Scientific Services of the German Parliament. Questions concerning sea rescue are also covered by some international maritime conventions and resolutions.
The term "distress at sea" has no exact legal definition. However, assistance must be provided to those who without help "cannot get to safety and get lost at sea" - no matter whether they are located on the high seas or in coastal waters. This also applies to ships that are overcrowded or disabled, or when there's a lack of food and water. The obligation to help applies both to ships that discover people in distress by chance and to those ships that intentionally set out to rescue people, such as those dispatched by organisations such as Sea-Watch, Doctors Without Borders or Mission Lifeline.
The United Nations' International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that those who have been saved must be brought to a safe place. This can be the nearest port as well as a larger ship. According to the Scientific Services of the German Parliament, a country can refuse a vessel access to its ports if it poses a "serious and unacceptable threat". However, those on board must be in safety. Rescue ships are not allowed to draw attention to themselves.
There has been criticism that human traffickers take advantage of the voluntary engagement of private rescue organisations and that their presence is an additional incentive for migrants because it decreases the risks attached to a journey across the sea.
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