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Persons Rescued at Sea  - Regulations and Guidance



As a result of wars, famine, poverty, political or religious persecution, natural disasters, armed conflicts and many other causes, thousands of people travel in unseaworthy boats to find better conditions of living. The boats in which these migrants travel are not properly manned, equipped or licensed for carrying passengers on international voyages. The journeys could be of several hours or days and in very difficult hazardous circumstances. Generally the migrants transported by sea travel without documents, in crammed conditions, facing severe weather at sea and often even death.

Governments are encouraged to take all the possible measures to prevent the use of unsafe boats to transport migrants endangering their life and the safety of the ship and of the cargo.
Regulations and Guidance
Pursuant to the "Tampa" incident in 2001, the Assembly adopted resolution A.920(22) on Review of safety measures and procedures for the treatment of persons rescued at sea, which recommends reviewing measures and procedures for the treatment of rescued persons, ensuring that the life of persons on board ships is safeguarded at that coastal communities should deal with such people satisfactorily.
Recommendations for States to take actions to avoid unsafe practices associated with the trafficking or transport of migrants by sea a, in accordance with domestic and international law, can be found in the IMO Circular MSC/Circ.896.Rev.1.
Amendments to the SOLAS and SAR Conventions concerning the treatment of persons rescued at sea, and/or asylum seekers, refugees and stowaways (adopted by the MSC 78 in 2004). 
  • SOLAS - chapter V (Safety of Navigation) – obligates the masters to provide assistance to any person in distress at sea, regardless of nationality or status of that person, and mandates Contracting Governments to co-ordinate and co-operate in assisting the ship's master to deliver persons rescued at sea to a place of safety; and adds a new regulation on master's discretion.
  • SAR - Annex to the Convention – obligate parties to assist the master in delivering persons rescued at sea to a place of safety and requires appropriate operating procedures for maritime rescue co- ordination centres to initiate the process of identifying the most suitable places for disembarking persons found in distress at sea.
Guidelines on the treatment of persons rescued at sea provide guidance to Governments and shipmasters with regard to humanitarian obligations and obligations under the relevant international law relating to treatment of persons rescued at sea.  The Guidelines are intended to assist Governments and masters to better understand their obligations under international law and provide helpful guidance with regard to discharge these obligations.
FAL.3/Circ.194 on Principles relating to administrative procedures for disembarking persons rescued at sea.
Persons in distress at sea should receive all possible assistance from other ships in the immediate vicinity, including by Masters, crews, coastal Governments/shore authorities and from all parties involved in the shipping industry, to be rescued, disembarked promptly to a place of safety and to receive a fair treatment once ashore.
As the exodus of migrants continues in different parts of the world and the need to rescue of persons becomes ever more evident, as desperate refugees travel in unsafe conditions, the Organization is committed to cooperate in all possible ways to create an international framework to encourage States and the whole shipping industry to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea and to deliver them to a place of safety, reducing the risk of losing lives in maritime incidents.
Pursuant the adoption of resolution A.920(22), above, the International Maritime Organization has worked closely with Member States and international organizations to ensure cooperation and coordination which are essential and at the core of rescue operations and that responsibilities are being taken accordingly by all parties concerned.
Rescue at Sea: a Guidance Prepared by IMO, ICS and UNHCR


Rescue at Sea: a Guide to principles and practice as applied to refugees and migrants has been prepared jointly by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

The guide is available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish (download language versions below).​


The guide is intended for Masters, ship owners, Government authorities, insurance companies, and other interested parties involved in rescue-at-sea situations. It provides guidance on relevant legal provisions, on practical procedures to ensure the prompt disembarkation of rescued persons, and on measures to meet their specific needs, particularly in the case of refugees and asylum-seekers. 

UN agencies working together

Please click here for details and presentations from the High-Level Meeting to Address Unsafe Mixed Migration by Sea held at IMO Headquarters (4-5 March 2015) to facilitate dialogue and promote enhanced cooperation and harmonization between United Nations agencies, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, Governments and the shipping industry. 

Increasing numbers ​

It is likely that 2016 will reach a record high for illegal migration at sea, putting lives at risk and placing a huge strain on rescue services and on merchant ships. The age-old principles of rescue on the high seas are being stretched to breaking point.

UNHCR says that, according to estimates from coastal authorities and information from confirmed interdictions and other monitoring, more than 207,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in 2014. This onslaught of migration by sea, often in unsafe vessels, is not a random occurrence. It is being organized and orchestrated by people who trade and traffic the lives of others. (UNHCR: The sea route to Europe: The Mediterranean passage in the age of refugees.)

According to IOM (

  • in 2015, 153,842 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy while in 2014 there were 170,100. The number of migrants who arrive to Greece by sea in 2015 was 853,650 migrants;
  • since the beginning of 2015, IOM estimates that 31,244 migrants and refugees have arrived in Greece by sea. This is some 21 times as many as the 1,472 recorded by the Greek Coast Guard for the whole of January 2015. The number suggests that maritime arrivals in Greece in 2016 may significantly exceed the record of 2015; and
  • since January 2016, 1,071,518 migrants, including asylum seekers are reported to have arrived to Europe by land and sea routes, of which 1,035,386 have arrived by sea. Tragically 3.830 migrants are known to have drowned or remain missing. Already in 2016 more than 175 people are reportted to have died (see IOM for latest figure).

Legal framework

There is a legal framework in place to make this a crime – the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, which is an annex to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. 

The organized, international crime, in the Mediterranean needs to be addressed, with collective action by all concerned to detain, arrest and prosecute people smugglers. 

IMO can play its part but the ultimate solution lies in collaboration among several other bodies and UN agencies, such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, INTERPOL, the African Union, the European Union and European Commission and the Economic Commissions for Africa and for Europe.

Outcome of MSC 95 ​

MSC 95 approved a new format for reporting incidents of migrant smuggling by sea approved by IMO, IOM and UNODC. A new inter-agency platform for information sharing on migrant smuggling by sea has been launched on 6 July 2015 (click here to see more information) and includes publicly accessible data via (registration is required), and restricted access information for Member StatesCircular Letter No.3569 (15 July 2015) provides further information on the new joint platform hosted on IMO’s Global Integrated shipping Information System (GISIS).