The Mirpuri Foundation has announced a collaboration with the prestigious British Institute of International and Comparative Law to offer financial support for an Institute study of the responsibilities of, and implications for, private vessels involved in the search and rescue of migrants and refugees at sea.

Each day, in Europe and beyond, desperate people are being plucked from the sea, as migrants and would-be asylum seekers embark upon perilous sea crossings in flight from violence, persecution or war, and in search of protection. Many of them do not survive.

And, whilst organised criminals and smugglers grow rich on the suffering of these individuals, assistance is increasingly being sought from private vessels and NGO ships . In 2016, no fewer than 381 merchant ships were diverted from their routes, and 121 ships were involved in the rescue of 13,888 people.

The project, led by BIICL Senior Research Fellow, Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci, will examine the roles and responsibilities of, and the legal implications for, those in control of private vessels who become involved in the rescue of migrants and refugees at sea.

In an interview with the Foundation, project leader, Dr Gauci, said: “due lack of clarity in aspects of the legal framework, coupled with the way politics has come into this, we too often see problems arising including vessels being told to take people back to unsafe ports like Libya and disembarkations being denied or delayed. This is causing a disincentive for shipping companies to rescue people at sea. We also now have the reality of NGO rescue vessels and the various challenges to their work being enacted by States”.

The Foundation-funded project will examine a range of important issues, such as the legal implications of becoming involved in migrant rescues, delays in the disembarkation of rescued peoples, and the difficult human rights issues that surface when States instruct the return of rescued individuals to countries where their lives and liberties are at risk.

As regards such State action, the project announcement comes just months after Portugal became one of the first nations to volunteer to take in some of the migrants on board the ‘Lifeline’, a rescue ship that was left stranded at sea after Italy refused it safe harbour.

Portugal also has a good record on migrant responsibility generally, and is already party to the voluntary programme for the resettlement of refugees that was proposed in January 2018 by the European Commission. This programme aims to resettle at least 50,000 refugees over the next two years. Within the framework of an earlier programme, which ran from 2015 to March 2018, Portugal took in 1,552 refugees.

Speaking from the Foundation headquarters in Lisbon, Foundation President, Paulo Mirpuri, said: “Every day, on our television screens, we see the desperate plight of migrant peoples. We should all reflect that no mother would ever place her child on a migrant boat, with all the dangers that entails, unless she felt sure it was a safer situation than the one that she and they were already in. The Foundation is proud, then, to support this research and we very much hope that its outcome will be to save lives.”

It is intended that the project will develop guidelines, and training, for seafarers around the world.