Roundtable Event at Federal Foreign Office: Search and Rescue in the Central Mediterranean: Perspectives from Civil Society
©  phototek/Trutschel

May 30, 2023

In January 2023, the European Commission revived the Search and Rescue Contact Group, composed of all 27 member states as well as the four Schengen Associated Countries. Its declared aim is to “enhanc[e] cooperation and information exchange between Member States, as well as with other relevant stakeholders, in the field of search and rescue,” and to “establish a more coordinated and structured framework for cooperation at EU level in order to ensure rapid response in case of events at sea as well as maintaining safety of navigation and ensuring effective migration management.” While the IMO, Frontex, and EMSA/JRC have made presentations, so far, no civil society actors have been invited to the meetings.

In light of this process, on May 30, 2023, the German Federal Foreign Office convened a roundtable of experts from international organizations (IOM, UNHCR, IMO), German and European NGOs (including NGOs active in search and rescue) and academia (legal scholars, political science and sociological experts, mechanical engineers, and naval architects). Entitled “Search and Rescue in the Central Mediterranean: Perspectives from Civil Society,” it brought together the perspectives and the technical, legal and political expertise of those active in saving lives in the Central Mediterranean and of researchers and other professionals working in the field of search and rescue operations at sea.

Prof. Dr. Nora Markard was invited as expert on the Law of Search and Rescue and to prepare an independent conference report with her team, to be circulated in the EU’s Search and Rescue Contact Group.

Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and IOM Director General António Vitorino opened the event with keynote addresses, followed by a high-level expert panel discussion. Four Working Tables consisting of 15–20 experts then discussed (1) coordination and communication in search and rescue operations, (2) a European approach on search and rescue operations, (3) technical and administrative cooperation with NGO vessels, and (4) how to safeguard humanitarian space in the Central Mediterranean. Rapporteurs presented each working table’s findings in a plenary session. Violeta Moreno-Lax (Queen Mary University London) summarized the key elements and recommendations of the day. (See the agenda.)

The participants identified several factors contributing to the high numbers of deaths at sea:

  • The criminalization of NGOs including administrative blockades at ports, long stand-offs at sea, and the prosecution of civil society actors;

  • The insufficiency of state-led search and rescue operations;

  • The lack of compliance with international rescue obligations by state actors and the lack of accountability for human rights violations by states at sea;

  • The shortcomings in communication and cooperation with civil search and rescue actors by states’ Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers (“MRCCs”);

  • The framing by EU member states of search and rescue as security issue rather than one of humanitarian obligations.

To address these shortcomings, the experts put forth several recommendations:

  • MRCCs should adopt a transparent procedure for assessing the vessels available for rescue, share information with all relevant actors in proximity to the scene, and assign vessels to the rescue based on their ability and capacity to rescue.

  • States need to comply with international obligations such as the Law of the Sea and Human Rights Law when conducting rescue operations.

  • The EU and its member states should protect the civic space for humanitarian NGOs in refraining from any criminalization attempts and unjustified administrative burdens.

  • The EU and its member states should immediately stop cooperating with regimes that persistently violate human rights, such as Libya.

  • The EU should reintroduce an EU-led SAR mission which focuses on saving lives at sea and operates in full compliance with international law.

  • The EU and its member states should strengthen relocation mechanisms and introduce a Humanitarian Response Plan for the high seas which identifies needs, provides funds, and monitors compliance.        

Read the full report here:

Nora Markard, Marlene Stiller, Lina Möller: Roundtable with International Experts on ‘Search and Rescue in the Central Mediterranean: Perspectives from Civil Society’, 30 May 2023, Berlin. Report, Münster, Aug. 8, 2023.