Migrants at sea

Priority: saving lives at sea is always a priority

Dutch Shipowners:

"Saving lives in emergency situations is always an absolute priority. That said, it is the also the job of European governments to find a lasting solution to the migrant problem in the Mediterranean Sea."

The KVNR continues to call on the Dutch government to adopt a common position and approach at the European level. This will limit the role of merchant shipping and allow migrants to disembark without delay in a safety.

KVNR - Cathelijne Bouwkamp - Maritime Security & International Law _web


Cathelijne Bouwkamp
Maritime law and Security

+31 10 2176 279
+31 6 4168 5465

KVNR - Nathan Habers - Public Relations, Crisisco├Ârdinatie en Geopolitiek - web
Press inquiries


Nathan Habers
Public Relations

+31 10 2176 264


In recent times, migrants are trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in small boats. This practice is often handled illegally by people smugglers without due care for the safety and survival of the migrants.

Shipowners and their crews have a legal duty to help anyone in peril at sea. Part of that assistance may be that the captain decides to take people on board. An important point here is that the ship is permitted drop the migrants off at a safe port of call.

The following problems are relevant to the Central Mediterranean. The current reluctant stance of Italy and Malta to accept migrants, and the position of Libya as a country with an active, recognized coastguard but also with an insecure status, means that a ship with migrants on board may have difficulty disembarking these people. Furthermore, there is a risk that migrants, for whatever reason, are not satisfied with the port or country where they have to disembark. This has the potential to cause an unsafe situation on board.

The European Union no longer operates active missions against human trafficking. Operation IRINI aims to combat arms smuggling to Libya; its main purpose is to enforce the arms embargo. Any naval vessels involved are of course still obliged under international law to rescue people in danger at sea, but searches and monitoring are no longer actively executed. Frontex is active. Frontex is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. Frontex coordinates multiple anti-smuggling operations, such as Minerva and Indalo in Spain, Themis in Italy (which replaces Operation Triton) and Poseidon in Greece. These operations focus on surveillance and border control in the Mediterranean Sea.

The challenge

Through contact with members of the Dutch parliament, the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the KVNR has repeatedly drawn attention to the problems in the Mediterranean Sea. In fulfilling their obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, shipowners and their crews want to help people in danger at sea. On the other hand, a situation cannot be created where European authorities see less urgency to find a solution due to the rescue operations of the merchant navy.

The KVNR considers it a joint task of European governments to find an approach that takes humanitarian factors as well as the situation of merchant ships into account. The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum (November 2020) does not include information about merchant shipping and disembarkation. According to the KVNR, this is a missed opportunity. For this reason, this subject is also being discussed with the European Commission. The KVNR and ECSA would like the European Commission to indicate explicitly the role of merchant shipping.

Furthermore, it is necessary that Frontex continues to operate effectively, especially now that EU NAVFOR no longer offers support. As many boat migrants as possible must be identified and rescued in good time by trained and equipped units. If merchant ships do carry out rescue operations, the disembarkation of migrants must be able to take place as quickly as possible and with the full cooperation of the relevant authorities.

State of play - 18 February 2021

In 2014, international merchant navy vessels saved a total of 40,000 migrants at sea. This was a record number. From 2016, these numbers have fallen sharply and stabilised. Statistics relating to the European refugee and migrant crisis are kept by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The role that Operation Sophia had contributed in picking up migrants in peril now seems to have been passed to the merchant navy. As such, the situation seems to have returned to how it was in 2014/2015, when the merchant navy had to rescue the vast majority of migrants, thus forming part of the structural rescue procedures.

This is not the desired outcome of the situation and the KVNR continues to call on the Dutch government to adopt a common position and approach at the European level. The first step is that the role of merchant shipping must be limited and migrants must be able to disembark in a safe harbour without delay.