Issue 07 2019-2020

Why Evolving European SAR Policies Threaten Merchant Shipping


Operators of commercial vessels have rescued tens of thousands of migrant seafarers in the Mediter- ranean Sea since 2014. For commercial actors, swift disembarkation of survivors is critical to ensure safety and prevent further disruption to the rescuing vessel’s primary voyage. From 2014 through 2017, European coastal states such as Italy, Malta, and Greece permitted rescued migrants to disem- bark into their territory. But recent policy changes reflect evolving attitudes about search and rescue (SAR) responsibility. Beginning in 2018, commercial vessels and humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have performed large-scale rescues only to be denied immediate access to Mediterranean ports. This has created alarming scenarios in which rescued migrants and ship op- erators have remained at sea for days and weeks as solutions were negotiated by politicians on an ad hoc basis. Addressing the consequences of this policy transformation, this paper examines its impact on commercial vessel contributions to migrant rescues. Highlighting the intertwined legal respon- sibilities of private vessels and public authorities, it discusses the international SAR framework and its contemporary implementation. It then surveys reactions within the shipping industry reflecting concerns that evolving regional perspectives may drive up the risks, costs, and frequency of private participation in SAR operations.

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