Rescue at Sea & the Humanitarian Imperative

6 juin 2017
At the end of 2015, 63.5 million people were displaced.[1] Just 12 months earlier that figure was at 59.5 million, meaning that the number jumped by 4 million people in a year[2]. Every minute, 24 people were forced to flee in 2015[3]. The crises from which they flee are becoming more complex and protracted with displacement lasting an average of 26 years[4].

In 2015, over 1 million refugees and migrants arrived on the shores of Europe – over 4000 were feared drowned[5] - and 1,000 more people were lost at sea in 2016[6]. Despite these shocking statistics, the burden of the global refugee crisis on Europe is marginal. 86% of all refugees are hosted in developing countries, and the top ten host countries are all in the ‘Global South’, often countries neighbouring crises. Indeed, the ‘European Migrant Crisis’ is more reflective of the public reaction to the phenomenon than its scale.

In this climate, organisations such as SOS Méditerranée, have made it their mandate in the last few years to rescue migrants and refugees at sea. In this article, we ask what can humanitarians operating on terra firma learn from rescuers at sea? What are the particularities of the maritime environment, that allow for the adoption of new practices and ideas? How can NGOs learn from each other to pre-empt changes in the humanitarian sector and thus, remain relevant in a rapidly changing world?

Maritime Law

The laws on rescuing migrants and refugees at sea are specific and helpfully practical.[7]

National waters stretch 12 nautical miles[8] beyond the coastline of a given country. Beyond those 12 miles is the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, and further beyond the EZZ are international waters. Maritime law stipulates that a vessel must aid another in distress regardless of these delineations.

The obligation to rescue another vessel in distress is a long-standing tradition among sea-farers, which has been enshrined in law over the course of the last century. Three pieces of legislation are most relevant to rescue at sea:

    1. 1974 SOLAS convention: The international convention for the Safety of Life at Sea obliges the ‘master of a ship at sea, on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, … to proceed with all speed to their assistance”

    2. 1979 SAR convention: The international convention on Maritime Search and Rescue ensures that assistance [is] provided to any person in distress at sea … regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found’ (Chapter 2.1.10) and to ‘… provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety’ (Chapter 1.3.2).

    3. 1982 UN convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) details points of the two conventions above, and imposes every coastal state party to set up and maintain effective Search and Rescue operations at sea and to cooperate with neighbouring states for this purpose.

The Simplicities of Maritime Rescue

The conventions cited above mean that rescue at sea is generally more straightforward than terrestrial humanitarianism.

‘Entraide’[9]: All of the laws mentioned above rest on the assumption that humans are equal, and in a hostile environment (that is the sea, rather than our natural habitat that is on land) - especially in a situation of distress -, humans are tied together in the struggle against the elements.

Search and Rescue: On finding out that a vessel is in distress, a master of a ship has to search and rescue the passengers aboard. The importance of this is paramount, as it means that legally once a master has been alerted to distress, he/she must go out of his or her way to find, and once found, rescue those aboard that vessel. The imperative to help those in distress eliminates any choice on the part of the humanitarian at sea.

Impartiality: Passengers in distress should be helped regardless of nationality or status [10] and the master of a ship is actively (and legally) deterred from taking any statements and making any decisions on the status of those rescued[11]. The application of humanitarian principles, particularly that of impartiality[12], is therefore less contentious on sea than it is on land. It is once disembarking the passengers, that things become more difficult for sea-rescuers.

Protection of vulnerable peoples: The SAR convention refers to ‘a place of safety’ as a “location where rescue operations are considered to terminate, and where: the rescued persons’ safety of life is no longer threatened; basic human needs (such as food, shelter and medical needs) can be met; and transportation arrangements can be made for the rescued persons’ next or final destination[13].” Parallels can be made with securitised refugee camps on land.

Embracing Change at Sea

Humanitarian operations on land are different to rescues at sea and can often be much more complex in execution. Maritime rescues are often discrete and time-limited interventions – a rarity in a time of protracted humanitarian crises. Complications on land arise because operations are rarely quick in and out interventions. Maritime rescuers have a difficult task, but once passengers are disembarked on land they are no longer the ship’s responsibility and arguably, it is at this point that things get complicated in the humanitarian chain.

That being said, the simplicities of humanitarian aid at sea allow us to see how change is taking place in the sector as a whole and how organisations can be better prepared to adapt to these changes (both on land and at sea). The following aspects of SOS Méditerranée’s experience are encapsulated in the innovations below, and demonstrate what humanitarians on land can do to remain relevant in the years to come:

Innovative Financing & citizens’ movements: In the space of 6 weeks, SOS Méditerranée crowdfunded €275,000 to acquire and equip a rescue ship (The Aquarius) for migrants/refugees making the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean. Crowdfunding is drastically changing the humanitarian financing landscape and the refugee crisis has been a rife testing ground for this innovative financing tool (campaigns like #HelpCalais spring to mind). The citizen movements behind this operation remind us of the voluntary mobilizations that lie at the heart of humanitarian work. Crowdfunding also allows for specific and time-bound projects to be put forward, developed and implemented by the public.

Local competencies: Rescues at sea base themselves on who is present and able to respond and find another vessel in distress. Those who end up doing the rescuing are those with the most knowledge of the sea, those who have enough space on board, and in some cases those with the right medical equipment. On land, humanitarians are often criticised for flying in external resources (human and material) and not using local contextual knowledge enough. At sea being at the right place at the right time is the main decisive factor in who responds and where.

Cooperation: Humanitarians at sea must and do cooperate with other vessels (rescue, commercial, and national), other NGOs, and with the governments of various nations to ensure the search, rescue, and disembarkation of those in distress. SOS Méditerranée estimates that in 2016, there were up to 12 rescue boats in the Mediterranean (though they were the only ones operating throughout the low season). To avoid the dangerous duplication of efforts, rescue boats must cooperate and play to their strengths – even the most gentle of approaches could capsize an overloaded dingy, let alone the approach of too many boats. The boats themselves may also be determinants of who is best placed for a rescue operation – passenger capacities, rescue equipment, medical facilities, food and water provisions, psychological services (those rescued are often traumatised). The humanitarian concept of ‘filling the gap’ – often an intention that is not realised on land – seems to be unusually well-applied at sea.

Access: Finally, combined with the other factors mentioned above, access to affected populations at sea is easier than on land. On land, environmental (e.g.: landslides) or human barriers (political, military, or socio-economic) stand in humanitarians’ way, whereas at sea, barriers (apart from occasional rough seas) do not indefinitely impede access to populations in need of assistance.


The legal and environmental simplicity of rescue at sea creates the space for new approaches and tools to be tested. Land-based humanitarians could adopt these in order to pre-empt the changes that are likely to shape the sector in years to come – e.g.: innovative financing, increased partnership building, and a shift towards localisation. As operations get ever more complex for humanitarians the world over, organisations that learn from others, pre-empt change and adapt accordingly, will be the ones that survive

[1] This article is based on an event run by La Foundation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, organised by the Chair of "Exil et migrations", directed by Alexis Nuselovici of the Collège d'études mondiales, with panellists from Action Against Hunger, IRIS and SOS Méditerranée.
[2] Edwards, Adrian, 2016, UNHCR, Accessed here in June 2017.
[3] Edwards, Adrian, 2016, UNHCR, Accessed here in June 2017.
[4] UNHCR, 2015, Global Trends, Edwards, Adrian, 2016, UNHCR, Accessed here in June 2017.
[6] Euronews, 2016, Record 5000 migrants drown in the Mediterranean in 2016, Accessed here in June 2017.
[7] Note we mainly refer to non-state ships in this article – such as the vessels of SOS Méditerranée and other non-governmental vessels. This is because the law that applied to state vessels is particular, especially regarding the treatment of refugees and migrants.
[8] 22.2 km or 13.8 miles.
[9] Entraide is a French word which translates literally into English as ‘inter-aid’ and is defined as mutual aid, or mutual assistance.
[10] This law builds on the 1951 refugee convention, which prohibits the return of refugees/asylum seekers to the “frontiers of territories where [their] life or freedom would be threatened on account of [their] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” ((Article 33(1)). In the case of the Mediterranean rescues done by organisations like SOS Méditerranée, this means they cannot return the majority of those rescued to the Libyan coastline (where many embarked).
[11] “If rescued persons appear to indicate that they are asylum-seekers or refugees or that they fear persecution or ill-treatment if disembarked at a particular place, the Master should inform the rescued persons concerned that the Master has no authority to hear, consider or determine an asylum request” Note: as stated in an earlier footnote, state vessels have different rules regarding asylum claimants on board
[12] “Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no judgement no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions.” OCHA on Message: Humanitarian Principles. Accessed here in June 2017.
[13] IMO, UNHCR & the International Chamber of Shipping, January 2015, Rescue at Sea. Accessed here in June 2017.
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