The Mirpuri Foundation collaborated 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.


Project Announcement:

The project, announced in 2019, was led by BIICL Senior Research Fellow, Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci, and aimed to 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.

It was initiated as a response to the ever-growing numbers of would-be asylum seekers and migrants forced to embark upon perilous sea crossings in flight from violence, persecution or war.

The project announcement came 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.


Project Update:

In July 2019, the BIICL gave an update on the project’s process and revealed that much of the early part of the project involved research aimed at clarifying the international legal framework regulating search and rescue activities (SAR) at sea, more particularly where such activities are carried out by merchant vessels. The law of the sea, maritime and shipping law and business and human rights law were analysed.

As part of the Institute’s research, the BIICL reported that in the first six months of 2019, 22,735 migrants arrived by sea to Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus or Malta – with 539 people estimated to have died in the water.

As well as the working to complete the research project, at this point the BIICL sought to broadcast the aims of the study more widely and spoke about it, and its appreciation of the Mirpuri Foundation involvement, at number of events in the UK capital and at meetings with King’s College, London, University College, London, University of Nottingham, Queen Mary University, London and other research institutes.

The project was also discussed with representatives of Search and Rescue NGOs, convened under the auspices of the Sarobmed Network, in whose work BIICL has now become a participant.

At this time, the following steps included the completion of the commissioned research and interviews with representatives from shipping and insurance companies and law firms, as well as the drafting of the project’s findings. The Institute also continued to make its work public through presentations at conferences and other events.


Project Findings:

November 2020 marked the release of the findings of this unprecedented study on the legal implications for private vessels involved in the rescue of migrants and refugees at sea. The study was presented at a webinar that gathered experts and relevant attendees from all over the world.

The study unveiled a set of important legal conclusions that can ultimately serve as guidance for individuals, companies, NGSs and governments:

  1. The obligation of vessels to rescue people in distress at sea is clearly established in International Law;
  2. When involved in the rescue of migrants at sea, private vessels have the responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to human rights violations. This includes the obligation to prevent loss of life at sea and the responsibility to ensure that people are not returned to countries where they might face serious human rights violations;
  3. The commercial costs for vessels in the context of rescue comprise direct costs – such as humanitarian provisions, additional wages and stores, extra fuel consumed during and after the rescue – and indirect costs – including issues arising from deviation and delay, resulting in financial losses;
  4. States also have responsibilities and obligations regarding these situations. For instance, States have the responsibility of ensuring that the vessels rescue people in distress, that they support masters in their rescue operations, that they cooperate to ensure prompt disembarkation and that they refrain from providing instructions that result in human rights violations.



The report explores the law around search and rescue particularly from the perspective of private vessels. It is organised as follows:

  1. Setting the context
  2. The Obligation to Rescue
  3. Human Rights Responsibilities
  4. Commercial Implications
  5. Recommendations

The report can be consulted here.


Related events:

110th Annual Conference of the Society of Legal Scholars