Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Migrants at Sea: What Role for International Law?

Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

Migrants at Sea: What Role for International Law?

Article excerpt

This panel was convened at 3:00 p.m., Thursday, March 31, 2016, by its moderator Chiara Cardoletti-Carroll of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who introduced the panelists: Siobhan Mullally of University College Cork; Melissa Phillips of the Danish Refugee Council, Non-Resident Fellow, Center on International Cooperation New York University; Maria Theodorou of the Greek Embassy; and Ralph Wilde of University College London Faculty of Laws.


By Chiara Cardoletti-Carrol *

More than one million people crossed the Mediterranean in 2015. In the first ten weeks of 2016--during the supposedly quieter winter months--more than 165,000 people had already attempted the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

What is happening in the Mediterranean reflects, from a displacement perspective, the state of the world today and the profound protection crisis it is confronted with. Conflicts in Syria and throughout the world are generating profound levels of human suffering. The scale of forced migration and the responses needed dwarf anything we have ever seen before. There are now more than sixty million people displaced worldwide--more than at any time since the end of World War II. As of mid-2015, there were over 20.2 million refugees in the world, and asylum applications jumped 78 percent over the same period in 2014. The number of internally displaced people now stands at an estimated 34 million people.

How did we get here? Over the past five years, at least fifteen conflicts have erupted or reignited throughout the world: eight in Africa; three in the Middle East; one in Europe; and three in Asia. Old crises continue unabated, with protracted displacement becoming a preoccupying feature of the world displacement crisis. When a refugee spends an average of seventeen years in displacement, it is not surprising that secondary movements--like the ones we are seeing today in Europe--are increasingly becoming a coping mechanism for families seeking a dignified future for their children.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees approaches this not as a "migrant problem," but as a complex forced displacement/refugee situation requiring sustained protection responses and commitment to address the root causes of flight. While border management is a responsibility of all countries, orderly and protection-sensitive procedures that ensure every individual's claim can be heard are fundamental in ensuring that the principle of non-refoulement, or the return of an individual to a country where his life or freedom would be threatened, is respected and properly applied. Border closures and pushbacks, including at sea, exacerbate vulnerabilities and sustain "market opportunities" for smugglers. Furthermore, evidence suggests that they do not work. Such tactics just change, and indeed complicate, the dynamics of irregular movements. At sea, all countries are bound by the imperative of assisting those in distress in keeping with the time-honored tradition of rescue at sea. The prohibition of non-refoulement also applies here, resulting in an obligation not to disembark people in territories where their rights would be threatened.

As we confront what has been referred to as the "worse displacement crisis in history," the urge is to do so in a spirit of shared responsibility to a common challenge while preserving the institution of asylum as a central, fundamental anchor in the development of effective regional and global responses.


By Ralph Wilde **

When the fate of migrants at sea is discussed, it is common for the implementation of international law to be invoked as a remedy. The present paper interrogates some of the assumptions about the value of international law that lie behind this. …

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