Avoidable Deaths of Migrants Attempting to Get to Europe by Sea

Avoidable Deaths of Migrants Attempting to Get to Europe by Sea

By: Tony Moore


At a Press Conference in April 2022, a spokesman for the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN’s Refugee Agency, announced that more than 3,000 people had died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Central and Western Mediterranean and Atlantic from Africa to Europe in 2021. Of this number, 1,924 were reported dead or missing on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, while an additional 1,153 perished or went missing on the Northwest African maritime route to the Canary Islands. This was an increase of 478 over the number reported missing or who had died in 2020. Meanwhile, on the Eastern Mediterranean, the number of migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek Islands has fallen steadily from a high of 856,723 in 2015 to 4,331 in 2021. Nevertheless, there were 111 deaths in 2021 (UNHRC, 2022).

Search and Rescue

Under international maritime law and the law of the sea, a range of actors have obligations to render assistance to persons in distress at sea. These include flag States, i.e. States in which ships are registered, the captains of ships which are in the vicinity of a distress location, coastal States and States responsible for the coordination of the relevant Search and Rescue (SAR) zone.

The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention), directs coastal states to establish national SAR zones in cooperation with neighbouring states and to take primary responsibility for responding to SAR incidents that occur within their region, either through deploying national vessels, coordinating the responses of other states, or tasking private, commercial or other non-state actors to respond and render assistance. On receiving information that a person is in distress within their SAR zone, the SAR Convention, also requires States providing the overall coordination of such SAR zones, ‘to take urgent steps to provide the most appropriate assistance available’ and, where such assistance is rendered, to take primary responsibility for ensuring effective co-ordination and cooperation ‘so that survivors assisted are disembarked from the assisting ship and delivered to a place of safety’ (IMO, 1979).

Whilst European countries do routinely rescue migrants in distress, the UN’s migration and refugee agencies, human rights groups and international law experts have accused countries bordering the northern shores of the Mediterranean of, too often, ignoring their international obligations. The most recent occurrence occurred in early November 2022 when the Ocean Viking, a Norwegian-flagged ship operated by a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) carrying 234 migrants it had rescued from the Mediterranean, was refused entry to Italian ports, and it was three weeks before it was eventually able to disembark them in a French port.

Pushbacks and dangerous practices

In April 2014, the EU Parliament approved a new set of rules covering search and rescue for border guards serving on Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. However, a report by the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Felipe Gonzales Morales, to the UN General Assembly in May 2021, suggested that Frontex had been implicated in pushbacks to Turkey and Libya, to the extent that the European Parliament had established a working group ‘to investigate Frontex’s compliance with and respect for human rights, and its adherence to its own transparency and accountability standards’ (European Parliament, 2021).

There have also been a number of cases that are termed Dangerous Rescue and Interception Practices. Thus, when migrants in distress have been discovered at sea, they have been met by ‘a pattern of reckless and violent behaviour’. This includes firing at or in the vicinity of migrant vessels, colliding with or ramming migrant vessels, conducting high-speed manoeuvres in the vicinity of a migrant vessel, causing large waves to capsize it. An example of this was highlighted in a ruling issued by The European Court of Human Rights on 7 July 2021 in which it found that Greek Coast Guards had towed a boat carrying 27 Afghans and Syrians, back towards the Turkish coast at high speed in poor weather conditions causing the boat to capsize. As a result, eleven of the occupants, all women or children, died. The Court found this had violated Article 2 (the right to life) and Article 3 (the prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment) of the European Convention on Human Rights (Cossé, 2022).

Operations carried out by private commercial or humanitarian groups

Many of the rescue operations in the Mediterranean are carried out by NGOs. But frequently, the ships they are using are left for varying lengths of time at sea waiting for a port of disembarkation to be assigned as was the Ocean Viking recently. This was by no means the first occasion this has occurred. In June 2022, the Geo Barents, with 659 migrants on board, including 150 minors and four people who were seriously injured, having been denied docking in Malta and Italy, multiple times, was finally able to dock in Greece after nine days stuck at sea (Racaniere, 2022). 

In addition, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) reported that, since 2018, national authorities in EU Member States have initiated some administrative and criminal proceedings on a number of occasions against crew members or vessels, including the impounding or seizure of humanitarian SAR vessels (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2022).


The OHCHR has highlighted four ways as to how the situation might be improved:

  • Assume a collective responsibility to save lives and prevent migrant deaths at sea.
  • Ensure the prompt and effective assistance is provided to all migrants in distress at sea, including through adequate State-led maritime patrols and by supporting SAR operations carried out by private commercial or humanitarian vessels, while ensuring swift disembarkation in a port of safety.
  • Carry out independent, impartial and thorough investigations into all allegations of failures to assist migrants in distress at sea.
  • Fully cooperate and ensure that information on the situation of migrants in distress within the corresponding SAR zone is shared with all relevant actors, including private commercial and humanitarian NGO actors (OHCHR, 2021).


Author’s short bio: Dr. Tony Moore is ADN’s Advisor and a former soldier, police officer and academic at Cranfield University. Dr. Moore is a Fellow of the Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.



United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). (2022) UNHRC Press Conference.

International Maritime Organisation (IMO)(1979). International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.

European Parliament: Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (2021) ‘Respect of fundamental rights by Frontex: European Parliament inquiry launched.’

Cossé, E. (2022) ‘European Court Slams Greece Over Deadly Migrant Pushbacks: Inquiry on Pushbacks is Urgently Needed’, Human Rights Watch. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/08/european-court-slams-greece-over-deadly-migrant-pushback#:~:text=The%20European%20Court%20of%20Human,asylum%20seekers%20back%20to%20Turkey.

Racaniere, M. (2022) ‘Rescue ship with 659 migrants on board to disembark in Italy after nine days at sea’, Euronews. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/08/04/rescue-ship-with-659-migrants-onboard-to-disembark-in-italy-after-nine-days-at-sea

European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2022). June 2022 Update – Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean and fundamental rights. Available at: https://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2022/june-2022-update-ngo-ships-sar-activities

United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission (OHCHR). (2021) “Lethal disregard”: Search and rescue and the protection of migrants in the Central Mediterranean Sea. Geneva: OHCHR, pp.12-13. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Migration/OHCHR-thematic-report-SAR-protection-at-sea.pdf

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