5 February 2016

A new incident made the headlines last week, when an Australian rescue worker allegedly let 31 people drown in the Aegean because their boat was still in Turkish waters and the rescuers themselves were in international waters. According to his testimony, the boat did not reach international waters and the team of rescuers was thus unable to reach the vessel, as doing so would have them potentially charged of people smuggling.

In response to the arising confusion over rights and obligations of rescue workers at sea after this incident, the International Maritime Rescue Federation – the federation of maritime search and rescue (SAR) organisations with the common humanitarian aim of preventing loss of life at sea – issued a statement to clarify the actual legal situation.  “Rescuing people in distress is a duty placed on everyone at sea, that applies whether in territorial or international waters, and regardless of the legal status of the people in distress or the circumstances in which they are found”, reads the statement.  The obligation to render assistance to persons in distress at sea and deliver them to a place of safety is clearly established in the international law of the sea.

The EU Facilitation Directive imposes penalties on any person who assists or tries to assist a non-EU national to enter the territory irregularly for financial gains. As stated by a briefing of the Fundamental Rights Agency, in Greece facilitation of irregular entry can be punished by prison terms of up to ten years and fines of up to 20,000€. However, the rescue of persons at sea and the carriage of people in need of international protection is explicitly excluded from punishment.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 5 February 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.