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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, report of migrant incidents at sea and on suspected smugglers and vessels, in accordance with domestic and international law, can be found in the IMO Circular MSC.1/Circ.896.Rev.2 on '' Interim measures for combating unsafe practices Associated with the trafficking, smuggling or transport of migrants by sea''.

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 was 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 States.  MSC 99 and FAL 42 encouraged Member States to provide and update the information included in the appendix via the Inter-agency platform for information-sharing on migrant smuggling by sea in GISIS.


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, ChineseEnglishFrench, 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.  

In that vein, a second attempt was made by IMO, by hosting a meeting to address this issue on 30 October 2017, bringing together representatives of UN agencies, the maritime industry and European Union naval forces.  The complexities of this humanitarian challenge were discussed. The record of views of the meeting has fed into the Global Compact on Migration (GCM), a UN Member State-led process that emanated from the 19 September 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants approved by Heads of State during the UN General Assembly. This two-year long process is expected to culminate in the the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, that will be held in Marrakesh, Morocco on 10 and 11 December 2018.


Increasing numbers

IOM says that 186,768 migrants arrived crossing the Mediterranean in 2017, and 3,116 perished. This year, up to 24 July 2018, the number of arrivals by sea is 53,269, and the number of dead/missing is 1,492. This compares negatively with last year, which had a higher number of both arrivals and lives lost from January to July, but a significantly lower percentage of death occurrence – 2.05 per cent compared with 2.80 in 2018. To add further perspective: from January 2014 until 11 July 2017, an estimated 16,840 – over 10 per day – lost their life in deadly shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, and an unknown number died but their bodies never recovered. With the greatest recorded number of migrant deaths occurring in maritime crossings, Search and Rescue (SAR) is at the center of the immediate life-saving efforts to ensure minimum loss of life. 

According to UNHCR 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.)

For more information on migration statistics, refer to IOM`s Migration Flows service.


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.