05.10.2022

To accept refugees in distress at sea

Italy refused to accept the ship with illegal migrants, has sparked a debate in the EU. Who needs to save and to receive distress migrants? The EU will have to find a compromise.The new Minister of internal Affairs of Italy Matteo Salvini, sticking right populist views, seriously trying to fulfill their campaign promises. So, in early June, he was not allowed to admit in an Italian harbour, chartered by a humanitarian organization SOS Méditerranée ship MS Aquarius. On Board were 629 undocumented migrants, among which about 100 children rescued in the Mediterranean sea.

“Malta not letting anyone in, France deploys people on its border, Spain protects its borders with weapons. Today and Italy will say “no” to human trafficking and illegal migration”, – wrote in Facebook Salvini.

Salvini insists that the ship should take Malta. Meanwhile, the government of Malta rejected the demand, stating that have nothing to do with rescue actions. The Supreme Commissariat of UN for refugees on 11 June called on immediately to allow the ship into the Harbor. After two days, during which the question of the fate of those on Board migrants, Spain has decided to accept these people. They are allowed to disembark and sent to Valencia.

Controversial issues in Maritime law

According to the UN Convention on the law of the sea, captains of vessels must assist persons in distress at sea. What should happen after people will be saved, and how it should be resolved from a legal point of view, the document is not clearly stated, says Stefan Talmon (Stefan Talmon), Professor of international law at the University of Bonn. When talking about the migrants who were on Board the ship, the wreck, from the point of view of the law of the sea there are many open questions.

The Mediterranean sea, as well as any other water area, divided into areas of search and rescue operations, under the responsibility of certain States. If such a zone receives a distress call, the state responsible for it, should coordinate action to rescue people. But clear rules on what to do after the rescue operation, the Convention no. So, no country is obliged to give permission to land on shore to those on Board the vessel that crashed. “About this gap in Maritime law when the country is obliged to rescue people in distress at sea, but is not obligated to accept them on its territory, has long been known,” says Talmon.

So the captains of ships find themselves in a delicate situation. In extreme cases, migrants may have saved days or weeks to be on Board their vessel in international waters.

Professor of Maritime law from the University of Bonn recalls the incident that happened in 2001. On a chartered boat in the Indian ocean was 400 rescued migrants from Afghanistan. When the ship was in the waters of Australia, the country refused to accept people on Board. So did other States. A few days later, a ship with migrants on Board was sent to the island of Nauru, where for a long time was an Australian refugee camp.

Border migrants are closed?

To change international law of the sea is quite difficult. “Many countries, such as Australia or the United States, do not want to take on legal obligations to accept migrants aboard the marine ship that crashed,” emphasizes Professor Talmon. According to the expert, according to the law, people, shipwrecked, needs to be delivered “in a safe place.” But not clearly spelled out, whether referring to land or a large ship, specially designed to for some time to make and post it on people in distress at sea. And can be considered “safe place”, for example, Egypt or Tunisia or the Mediterranean Harbor, located outside the EU?

In Maritime law is also not clearly spelled out, what to do with vessels chartered by non-governmental organizations: in the open sea, they are not under the jurisdiction of any state, and therefore they are not subject to the European Convention on human rights.

The confrontation between the new Italian government and the authorities of other EU countries, caused by the last case in the Mediterranean sea, is not a surprise, said Pierre Vimont. A former European diplomat who is now an analyst for international organizations, the Carnegie Center, recalls that Salvini during his election campaign promised to close the Italian border for migrants and are now actually delivers on its promises. Thus, closing of the Italian harbour for the rescue boats with illegal immigrants on Board, Salvini puts pressure on other EU countries. “This time it was Malta, the next time it can relate to Greece or Cyprus,” – says the analyst.

Populists in the EU and the immigration problem

The decision Salvini can give a new impetus to the debate on the reform of the European system of asylum. On 12 June its proposals on this score should represent the European Commission. “But the more pressure, the greater the desire to reach a compromise,” said Pierre Vimont.

One compromise solution may be an arrangement about how to show solidarity with countries along the EU borders and share the burden of responsibility with Italy, Greece or Bulgaria. But how will this happen, should be resolved by member countries of the European Union. In 2016, the European Commission has made a number of proposals. So far none of them have been implemented.

Countries that are not ready to accept the refugees, could provide financial support to those States that face the main flow of migrants. Pierre Vimont also says about the necessity of projects aimed at the development of African countries – and, in the implementation of these projects could help, first of all, those EU member States that received the least refugees: France and the United Kingdom.

The analyst hopes that Europe will soon be able to find a compromise and come to power in some EU countries, right-wing populists will not be able to prevent it. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who opposed the adoption by Europe of refugees, have agreed to consider providing financial support.

While EU countries are discussing the adoption and distribution of refugees, migrants change their usual routes. They are, according to Vimont choose a more “realistic goal.” One of them is Spain. Here in the last few months there has been an increased flow of migrants trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean sea. In this situation the proposal of the Spanish government to accept in Valencia persons on Board the vessel MS Aquarius was a broad gesture, says Pierre Vimont. But to follow the example of Spain are going, not all.

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