International Law and the Rescue of Refugees at Sea

Abstract: International law provides a duty to rescue everyone in distress at sea. Rescue at sea often entails recovering survivors and bringing them on board ships or other rescue units. While their subsequent delivery and disembarkation may not always be controversial, they frequently are if those assisted are refugees and migrants. Coastal states are especially likely to be reluctant to accept disembarkation within their territories if the distress situation and rescue operation occurred in the course of attempts to enter the coastal state in a clandestine or otherwise irregular way. The controversial but unavoidable question in such situations is where refugees and migrants rescued at sea shall be brought for disembarkation.Until recently, international law was strikingly silent in this regard. However, following amendments to the two main treaties on maritime search and rescue — the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue — international maritime rescue law now requires that everyone rescued at sea be delivered to a ‘place of safety’. The responsibility to provide such a place or to ensure that it is provided lies with the state party responsible for the search and rescue region in which the survivors were recovered. However, ‘place of safety’ is not defined in these or any other treaty. Instead, the application is guided by a set of guidelines from the International Maritime Organization (IMO). However, the guidelines are not legally binding and many questions remain unanswered.This thesis examines the meaning of the concept of ‘place of safety’ against the background that many of those rescued at sea are refugees and migrants. Using a legal perspective, it asks how the meaning of this concept can be understood in the wider context of international law. The emphasis on the legal context links to the applicable standard of interpretation, which requires the meaning to be determined with reference to not only the text but also the context and the object and purpose of the treaty.Drawing on an explorative survey of the international legal framework for irregular maritime migration covering norms under the international law of the sea, international refugee law, international human rights law and international law against transnational organised crime and on a dedicated discussion of the applicable standard of interpretation, this thesis analyses the interpretation of the concept of ‘place of safety’. In keeping with the general legal framework of the interpretation of treaties, it explains that this concept cannot be understood with reference to the law of the sea exclusively, as it imports norms from other areas of international law. Due to the contribution of these other norms, including some of a primarily humanitarian character such as those dealing with non-refoulement, right to life and non-discrimination, this thesis argues that the meaning of the concept is broader than it first may seem. To conclude, this thesis summarises a ‘place of safety’ as a location where not only the maritime safety but also the basic security of survivors is no longer threatened.

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