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Maritime Search and Rescue: Responsibilities and Implications for Private Vessels

The British Institute of International and Comparative Law has just launched a new project looking at the responsibilities of and implications for private vessels of maritime search and rescue of migrants and refugees. The project is led by Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci and funded by the Mirpuri Foundation. 

Recent years have seen growing numbers of migrants, and would-be asylum seekers, embarking on perilous sea crossings to flee violence, conflict or persecution. Private vessels and NGO ships have increasingly been called on to assist persons in distress. In 2016, 381 merchant ships were diverted from their routes and 121 ships were involved in the rescue of 13,888 people.

Assistance by private vessels can vary from monitoring a vessel or temporarily embarking migrants whilst awaiting further assistance, to embarking and transporting migrants to a safe port. A number of legal issues arise in these scenarios, including related to the health and safety of persons on board, the duty of non-refoulment, private vessel contractual obligations and litigation potential.

Whilst guidelines have been developed on the practical measures seafarers should undertake in preparation for, and during, rescue operations, there is uncertainty on some of the legal issues at stake. Through independent, authoritative research and capacity building, the project will provide clear, practical guidance on the legal obligations incumbent on private vessels in search and rescue.

The research will examine the roles, responsibilities and legal implications for private vessels. Whilst the focus will be on commercial vessel, the role played by and implications for and of NGO rescue operations will also be considered. The project will consider international and national law in a range of areas, including refugee, criminal, human rights and maritime law, as well as the practices undertaken by States and industry bodies. The research will draw on treaties, legislation and case law, as well as soft law sources, including industry regulations, and secondary sources, such as the academic literature. Research will also involve a consultation with relevant stakeholders, conducted through semi-structured interviews. This will consider the policies and practices undertaken in a number of (coastal and flag) States and by a number of industry stakeholders.

The project will develop guidance and recommendations for private vessels, NGO ships, industry bodies and policy makers in search and rescue. Where appropriate, guidance will also be provided on the roles and responsibilities of States.

This project is funded by the Mirpuri Foundation. If you would like to find out more or to contribute to the project, please contact Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci.

BIICL is delighted to launch a new report entitled: When Private Vessels Rescue Migrants and Refugees: A Mapping of Legal Considerations.

The report explores the law around search and rescue particularly from the perspective of private vessels. The report is organised as follows:

  • Setting the context
  • The Obligation to Rescue
  • Human Rights Responsibilities
  • Commercial Implications
  • Recommendations

Read the report 

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