Unsafe mixed migration by sea


IMO has called for greater focus to be placed on addressing unsafe migration by sea so that fewer lives are lost due to large numbers of people setting out to cross the sea in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. 

In order to address the safety of life at sea and search and rescue issues arising from unsafe migration by sea, IMO has been working with its partner organizations in the UN system as well as other international bodies to develop and update guidance for shipmasters and Governments. An information sharing platform has been established.

IMO urges concerted action by the international community to tackle unsafe, mixed migration by sea, in the Mediterranean and other sea areas and has been actively addressing the issue at its own Committee meetings as well as through joint meetings on the matter with UN partners and other relevant international organizations.

IMO Regulations and Guidance

Pursuant to the "Tampa" incident in 2001, the IMO 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 and that coastal communities assist them satisfactorily. 

Recommendations for States to take actions to avoid unsafe practices associated with the trafficking or transport of migrants by sea, to report migrant incidents at sea and suspected smugglers and vessels, in accordance with domestic and international law, can be found in the IMO Circular 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. A new inter-agency platform for information sharing on migrant smuggling by sea was jointly set up by IMO, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and is in operation since 6 July 2015 (click here to see more information) and includes publicly accessible data via GISIS (registration is required), and restricted access information for Member States. (However, it should be noted that the  database has only a limited number of entries and may not represent the full scale of the total incidents.

In November 2022, at the Maritime Safety Committee's 106th session, a resolution was adopted on recommended cooperation to ensure the safety of life at sea, the rescue of persons in distress at sea and the safe disembarkation of survivors. It emphasizes the importance of effective and timely involvement of Governments in cases of rescue of migrants at sea by merchant ships.

UN agencies working together

In 2017, IMO hosted a meeting to address unsafe mixed migration by sea, 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 was 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 culminated in the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, that was held in Marrakesh, Morocco on 10 and 11 December 2018.

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

The IMO Secretariat has been participating in the Inter-Agency Group on Protection of Refugees and Migrants moving by Sea, led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), set up to exchange information, experience and good practices concerning mixed migration by sea, search and rescue (SAR) activities and safe disembarkation of rescued persons.

Statistics on mixed migrants rescued at sea

More than 1,366,000 migrants have entered in Europe since 2016, and 20537 dead and missing migrants, according to the figures of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In addition to this information, the Missing Migrants Project of IOM estimates that the Central Mediterranean is the deadliest known migration route in the world, with more than 17,000 deaths and disappearances recorded since 2014.  For further information, please click here.

Guidance on Rescue at Sea

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 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.

IMO has also issued guidelines on the treatment of persons rescued at sea

The guide is available in six languages, downloable below:

Arabic, ChineseEnglishFrench, Russian and Spanish (download language versions below).

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.

Global SAR Plan 

The Global SAR Plan can be found on the IMO Global Integrated Shipping Information system (GISIS) system (registration required). The Global SAR Plan module contains information on the availability of Search and Rescue (SAR) Services, based on information provided by IMO Member States

IMO films at the RE•THINK exhibition on migration

In 2015, IMO  partnered with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, United Kingdom,  to take a closer look at issues surrounding migration at sea. The RE•THINK exhibition on migration featured three short films produced by IMO. The films explore the following perspectives: