Migrants on a boat during a rescue operation conducted by the Italian coastguard in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Italian Coastguard
Migrants on a boat during a rescue operation conducted by the Italian coastguard in the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Italian Coastguard

What are the obligations of those who receive an emergency call from migrants at sea, and the responsibilities of the others involved in migrant rescue? Here is an explanation of how the system works, from the SOS call through to arrival at port.

The legal framework for migrant rescue at sea is the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), signed in Hamburg in 1979 and ratified by Italy 10 years later.

The Convention itself was not drafted to handle the current migrant emergency.

To fulfil the legal obligations set forth by the ratification of the Convention, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC), managed by the Coast Guard in Rome, must begin initial rescue actions and coordinate rescue operations for any emergency call it receives from international waters outside of its SAR area.

The case of waters under Libyan jurisdiction

At the same time that it takes on coordination of an operation, the IMRCC in Rome must notify the competent SAR authorities, or those who are "better able to assist", in order to facilitate turning over coordination of the operation. If the competent authorities do not respond or are not available, the IMRCC coordinates the operation until it is complete. As the coordinating authority, it determines the "place of safety" where the migrants can dock.

In the case of rubber dinghies carrying migrants in waters that fall under Libyan jurisdiction, if the SOS is received by the Italian Coast Guard, then the Italian Coast Guard will perform initial rescue operations. This is where the "circular message" transmitted to all ships transiting in the area comes into play. The message explains that there is an emergency situation underway and advises contacting the Libyan Coast Guard as the competent search and rescue authority. The contact details for the Libyan Coast Guard are provided, together with the closest maritime rescue centres (in this case Malta, Tunisia and Italy). The Italian Coast Guard simultaneously advises the Libyan Coast Guard of the emergency situation underway in Libya's SAR area, informing it of the message sent to all the ships transiting in the area.

Possible scenarios

At this point, two scenarios are possible. The first is that the Libyan Coast Guard responds affirmatively and takes up coordination of the rescue. This activity is conducted in total legality, under the observation of Italian authorities, given that last December Libya took up responsibility for a certain SAR area (which it can do unilaterally) and was recognized by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as the rescue coordination centre for its own SAR area. If, on the other hand, Libya does not respond or denies the request to manage the emergency, the Hamburg Convention establishes that rescue operations must be coordinated by the first country that received the request for assistance, in this case Italy, because the priority objective is still to save lives at sea.


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