Legal Opinion: Border Controls at Sea: Requirements under International Human Rights and Refugee Law

September 2007

ECCHR / Dr. Andre­as Fischer-Lesca­no, LL.M. and Till­mann Löhr, Sep­tem­ber 2007

Reques­ted by STIFTUNG PRO ASYL, Amnes­ty Inter­na­tio­nal and Forum Menschenrechte

The out­co­me of this syn­op­sis of refu­gee, human rights and mari­ti­me law is that sta­tes can­not cir­cum­vent refu­gee law and human rights requi­re­ments by decla­ring bor­der con­trol mea­su­res – i.e. the inter­cep­ti­on, tur­ning back, redi­rec­ting etc. of refu­gee boats – to be res­cue mea­su­res. In the case of both res­cue at sea and bor­der con­trol mea­su­res vis-à-vis migrants who are not in distress at sea, the fol­lo­wing pro­ce­du­res are required:

  • Trans­fer of the pro­tec­tion see­kers and migrants to a safe place on EU territory
  • Con­duct of pro­cee­dings in order to exami­ne the asyl­um application
  • Legal review of the decision.

The mari­ti­me obli­ga­ti­ons app­ly to pri­va­te and sta­te sec­tor cap­ta­ins ali­ke. Whe­ther the res­cue of refu­gees in distress is car­ri­ed out by pri­va­te per­sons or bor­der con­trol bodies is irrele­vant; the obli­ga­ti­on remains to trans­fer the per­sons affec­ted to a “place of safe­ty” whe­re the abo­ve-men­tio­ned human rights and refu­gee law requi­re­ments con­cer­ning pro­cee­dings and legal pro­tec­tion can be met.

Accor­ding to gui­de­lines from the Inter­na­tio­nal Mari­ti­me Orga­ni­sa­ti­on’s Mari­ti­me Safe­ty Com­mit­tee (MSC), a ves­sel, as a gene­ral rule, can­not be dee­med a safe place within the mea­ning of the SAR214 any more than pro­ce­du­ral rules for human rights and refu­gee law can be obser­ved on board.

Asyl­um see­kers and migrants who are taken in at sea or have rea­ched the juris­dic­tion of Euro­pean bor­der con­trol bodies by other means, must, the­r­e­fo­re, be per­mit­ted to dis­em­bark and resi­de on dry EU land pen­ding a decis­i­on and appeal.