E.g., 03/22/2017
E.g., 03/22/2017

Protection at Sea: Addressing Irregular Maritime Migration

Commentary
December 2014

Protection at Sea: Addressing Irregular Maritime Migration

A. D'Amato/UNHCR

The dangers of irregular maritime migration captured the world’s attention in October 2013 when 366 migrants died in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The surge of boat arrivals gained further momentum in 2014 as people fleeing violence, persecution, and poverty tried to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels. More than 3,000 people died in the attempt, compared with 700 in 2013, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates.

The global tally of deaths at sea is impossible to calculate, because an unknown number of boats sink, leaving no trace of their passengers. Undoubtedly many of those who died were refugees who would have qualified for protection had they managed to reach the shore.

Driven by the continuing loss of life in the Mediterranean, the Bay of Bengal, the Red Sea, and elsewhere, as well as by the challenges to border-control policies implicit in maritime migration, representatives of states, civil-society groups, and international organizations are gathering in Geneva this week under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an extraordinary meeting to launch a two-year initiative on rescue at sea, aiming to limit the loss of life and foster international cooperation. I will join the opening panel for a discussion on the extraordinary challenges of maritime migration in the 21st century with the Director-General of IOM, the Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on International Migration and Development. The range of speakers gives a taste of how many policy areas are implicated in consideration of rescue at sea. (The text of my remarks is available here. And you can watch the panel on UN TV.)

Although travel by sea accounts for a small proportion of refugees and migrants, it gets a disproportionate share of attention from policymakers, the media, and the public. Perhaps because it conjures up echoes of “invasion” to some people, and presents heart-rending images of suffering and death when boats founder, migration by sea is often met with crisis-driven responses ranging from rescue to harsh deterrence. These responses are rife with unintended consequences. Deterrence measures may leave refugees with no way to escape their persecutors. More intense and sophisticated measures to intercept unauthorized boats have taken the journeys out of the hands of amateurs and placed them more firmly in the hands of professional smugglers, many of them part of ruthless criminal networks. In the most extreme of unintended consequences, maritime rescue operations may encourage more risk-taking on dangerous journeys and result in even more deaths at sea. These dilemmas have no easy solutions.

Maritime migration is not only exceptionally dangerous; it is also exceptionally complex. Dizzying arrays of different actors are involved. At the base of the cast of characters are networks of migrants, their families, and communities in both destination and origin countries. Other actors include state structures like immigration and border protection agencies, private-sector interests such as fishing vessels and commercial shipping, international and humanitarian organizations like UNHCR, regional bodies like the European Union’s border control agency (Frontex), civil-society organizations that defend human dignity and human rights, and criminal syndicates that profit from the desperation of migrants. Each of these different actors views unauthorized maritime migration through a different lens—as primarily about humanitarian protection, law enforcement, national security, profit, or politics. Each responds to different laws, regulations, incentives, norms, and operational standards, making coherent policies difficult to achieve and implement.

Complicating rescue at sea even further is the fact that a state’s obligation to refugees and certain other categories of people requiring international protection is vastly different from its obligations to other migrants. Under the terms of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, states are not permitted to send a refugee back to a territory where his or her life or freedom would be endangered—although they are free to return most other unauthorized migrants to their home countries. When migrants are rescued at sea, states must enter an arduous process of distinguishing between the passengers who are refugees and those who are not. Then the question arises of where those who need protection might be able to find it. The answer is often a matter of controversy among states, and delays in answering it can discourage passing ships from coming to the aid of people in distress.

The increasingly sophisticated tactics used by smugglers pose a major challenge to policymakers. In the past, most maritime human-smuggling operations merely tried to evade border authorities on their journey. Today, it is common for smugglers to deliberately draw attention to unseaworthy boats carrying migrants, or to purposely disable the boat’s engine as a coast guard or search-and-rescue vessel approaches, thereby converting an interception into a rescue situation and making it impossible for the vessel to return to its origin. In addition, having learned the mechanisms that trigger protection responses from states, smugglers will coach migrants in the behaviors and stories that may help them to be seen as refugees. The manipulation of the rescue response puts rescue itself at risk.

The UNHCR initiative to be launched in the coming days, entitled the Global Initiative on Protection at Sea, will rally governments, civil society, private-sector partners, and international agencies behind the establishment of protection-sensitive responses to unauthorized maritime migration, to reduce the loss of life, exploitation, and violence experienced by the boat people of today. These efforts are urgently needed to protect not only refugees but also the integrity of national asylum systems.

One thing the participants should not expect to accomplish at the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Rescue at Sea is to solve the problem. The first step toward a stronger framework of rescue at sea is to recognize the complexity of the context in which it is embedded: unauthorized maritime migration. The multiplicity of actors, the mixed flows of refugees and non-refugees, the adaptability of smugglers to new rules, and the inter-relatedness with other equally complex problems guarantee that combining control of sea routes and protection of refugees will require a long, hard, and persistent effort. Policy will have to be flexible, adaptive, and oriented toward the long term. Bringing together the pieces of a puzzle that constantly shifts shape and dimension is a particular policy challenge and one that governments, civil society, the private sector, and international organizations must tackle together.

Kathleen Newland, Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute, leads its humanitarian protection work.


In the first quarter of 2015, MPI will publish a report examining unauthorized maritime migration, including the complex legal framework of rescue and interception at sea, the challenges of disembarkation, and policy options, with case studies of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden.