The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue: Legal Mechanisms of Responsibility-Sharing and Co-Operation in the Context of Sea Migration?
Forthcoming, Volume X of the Irish Yearbook of International Law
44 Pages Posted: 12 May 2017 Last revised: 15 May 2017
Date Written: April 11, 2017
2016 is marked as the deadliest year on record for ‘sea migrants’ crossing the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe. According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures, the number of reported fatalities and persons missing at sea amounts to 5,083, and the number of recorded sea arrivals has reached 363,348. These figures compare starkly to the previous year, where the IOM reported 3,771 dead and missing sea migrants in the same region, despite the number of recorded sea arrivals reaching 1,011,712. Overall, the Mediterranean is at present the deadliest region in terms of irregular sea crossings, followed by Southeast Asia, particularly the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
The sheer scale of losses of lives at sea in what has been described as the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War poignantly illustrates the existence of a dysfunctional international legal framework. It highlights, in particular, the limitations of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979, as amended (SAR Convention), a Convention that frames an international system of co-operation and co-ordination between States Parties with the purpose of ensuring common and efficient procedures to guarantee that assistance is rendered to any person in distress at sea. It remains a Convention that was, nevertheless, not designed, nor intended to respond to mass mixed migration by sea.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the majority of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea are refugees fleeing conflict and persecution at home, and also fleeing from ‘deteriorating conditions in many refugee-hosting countries’. The scarcity or even lack of legal and safe avenues to seek protection, despite numerous calls for humanitarian visas, has undeniably contributed to the staggering numbers of irregular sea crossings where the desperation of sea migrants has exacerbated their vulnerability in the hands of smugglers. The majority of sea migrants embark on life-threatening journeys on board unseaworthy boats or other ill-fitted craft, in inhuman and degrading conditions, setting course to a safe haven in search of international protection or better life conditions.
Although this complex and multifaceted problem reaches beyond the scope of the SAR Convention, it remains necessary to scrutinise this key instrument in the area of maritime search and rescue. Furthermore, the present crisis prompts the need to question whether the concerns surrounding this unprecedented scale of unsafe crossings need further consideration in the context of operational search and rescue procedures and the responsibility-sharing system overarching them.
This paper aims at providing an analysis of the SAR Convention to better understand the basic operational mechanisms in the SAR plan, as well as the responsibility-sharing system therein designed to deliver search and rescue services. It further attempts to highlight its segmented approach to a global and standardised response to the needs of those in distress at sea, and consequently its functional limitations outside of the context of regular maritime navigation. This paper also endeavours to assess the efforts made towards integrating broader concerns in the search and rescue system.
Keywords: Migrants, Sea, Mediterranean, SAR Convention, Maritime
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