The New 'Boat People': Ensuring Safety and Determining Status
This report seeks to bring new light to the issues of migration by sea—particularly the interception and rescue of “boat people”—by synthesizing key discussion takeaways from an international forum of policymakers, international organizations, NGO representatives, and academics. The first half of the report summarizes existing policy approaches to interception—actions taken by states to deter arrivals by sea—and rescue—the practice of assisting seaborne persons in distress. The second evaluates the distinct humanitarian needs involved in interception and rescue situations, analyzes the effectiveness of current policies, and offers recommendations for future steps. Four regional background papers that examine Australian, Canadian, European, U.S. policies are also included as Appendices to this report.
While international humanitarian laws direct how interception and rescue can be performed, the report finds that these legal mandates often clash with the political sovereignty of states and their desire to maintain control over their own borders. The report’s analysis of various state policies that aim to thwart the arrival of irregular migrants and asylum-seekers—maritime interception, detention, refusal to allow disembarkation, and diversion to prearranged, remote locations—indicates that such policies likely contribute to a number of humanitarian issues of concern: refoulment of refugees; burden-shifting of protection obligations among states; discriminatory practices within national asylum procedures; and complex moral, legal, and financial dilemmas for private shippers involved in rescue situations. Meanwhile, historical evidence suggests that none of these approaches demonstrate long-term success in controlling migrant flows.
To address some of the immediate challenges of arrivals by sea, the report recommends greater international coordination, a fund to cover the costs of rescue for private shippers, guaranteed access to asylum procedures for all individuals intercepted or rescued at sea, and monitoring of migrant departures. Ultimately, however, policymakers will need to consider ways to make the perilous departure by boat unnecessary by targeting the underlying causes of seaborne migration.