Refugees at sea

Priority: saving lives at sea is always a priority

Shipowners: "Saving lives in emergency situations is always an absolute priority. It must also be said that it is the job of European governments to find a lasting solution to the refugee and migrant problem in the Mediterranean Sea."

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Cathelijne Bouwkamp
Maritime law and Security

+31 10 2176 279
+31 6 4168 5465

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Press inquiries


Nathan Habers
Public Relations

+31 10 2176 264


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

Frontex is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency that provides assistance in protecting Europe’s frontier borders. Frontex carries out several operations against human smuggling, such as Minerva and Indalo in Spain, Themis in Italy (replacing Operation Triton) and Poseidon in Greece. These operations focus on surveillance and border control in the Mediterranean Sea.

2015 saw the establishment of Operation Sophia of EU NAVFOR MED. This military operation focuses specifically on tracking down people smugglers, their networks and their equipment, with the aim of reducing levels of people smuggling. Operation Sophia’s mandate limits its activity to the waters north of Libya. As of April 1st, 2019, the mandate is limited to a monitoring mission from the sky. No longer vessels will be allocated to Operation Sophia for waterborne support.

The challenge

Shipowners and their crews have the legal duty to help people in distress at sea. Part of this help may include the captain’s decision to take people on board. This raises the important point that the ship can set refugees back on land once a safe harbour is reached.

Various problems are applicable to the central area of the Mediterranean Sea. For example, the current unwillingness of Italy to accept refugees, and Libya’s geographical position, active coast guard and unsafe status mean that a ship that has rescued refugees can have difficulty disembarking these people. In addition, there is a risk that refugees are not satisfied with the port or country of disembarkment. This can lead to unsafe situations on board.

Through the European shipowners' association ECSA and the international shipowners' association ICS, the KVNR has repeatedly called for attention to address this issue. First and foremost, shipowners and their crews want to help people in emergency situations. However, it is vital that merchant navy vessels do not get into problems because European countries have not been able to make any decisions about how to tackle the migrant and refugee crisis.

The KVNR considers that it is the job of the combined European governments to find a lasting solution to the situation which takes into account the humanitarian factor and merchant shipping.

It is therefore critical that Frontex continues to operate effectively, especially now that EU NAVFOR no longer offers support. As many migrant and refugee boats as possible have to be located and rescued by trained and well-equipped units in time.

State of play - 3 April 2019

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).

As of April 1st, 2019, EU NAVFOR operation Sophia monitors the situation at the Libyan coast from the sky. No longer ships are allocated to provide waterborne support. The latter responsibility now seems to move to merchant shipping as the only maritime actor present. This situation brings to mind 2014/2015, when merchant vessels had to embark the vast majority of migrants, becoming a party in the structural rescue operations.

This is not a 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 and secure an approach that limits the role of merchant vessels while ensuring disembarkment of migrants in a safe port without further delay.