UK refuses to pay share of Med search and rescue costs

Stumbling before Ukip’s gains, our government refuses to help the EU search and rescue operation south of Malta, claiming more refugee deaths will reduce the number of migrants attempting the crossing

Our Foreign Office has decided that more people need to drown crossing the Mediterranean in search of asylum. This would deter others considering the same action. Tory peer Lady Joyce Anelay told the House of Lords that we will achieve this by refusing to chip in to the costs of Frontex’s joint search and rescue (SAR) operation in the Med.

I’m intrigued how many bodies need to wash up on the beaches before Anelay thinks the deterrent will be effective. 150,000 people have tried to cross in the last year. 2,500 others have drowned in the same period and over 20,000 people have died attempting the crossing since 1988. Even with the current comprehensive SAR coverage one in thirty of those attempting the journey won’t make it.

Photo originally taken by Gianni Mania. Lifted from Amnesty International's report—click to open.
Photo originally taken by Gianni Mania. Lifted from Amnesty International’s report.

The UN refugee agency describes the Mediterranean as “the most deadly stretch of water [in the world] for refugees and migrants”.

Despite this, hundreds attempt the journey every week.

How have we got into this mess, and how can we try and fix it?

Where are these people coming from?

Mainly sub-Saharan Africa or Asia (in particular Afghanistan and Pakistan). Eritreans remain the highest proportion, fleeing their nation’s desperate human-rights record, although the percentage of Syrians has grown massively since the start of the civil war in that country and growth of Isis.

Most suffered persecution, oppression and corruption in their homelands. Many are travelling as families—just under half of those on some boats were children.

Some are seeking lands where they can make enough money to feed their family.

Europe is highly attractive to immigrants, but as we struggle with our own economic issues (albeit not quite on the same level as splitting rocks for a living) most EU governments have put in place complicated, slow assessment routines to determine who gets to enter.

If you want to get in to Europe fast, your only real choice is to pay a criminal to smuggle you in. The preferred route for their boats is from the shores of Libya and heading north towards Malta and Italy.

Legally, who should be providing search and rescue in the Mediterranean?

There’s some competing legal things going on here.

Most of it stems from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 1974 Safety of Life at Sea Convention (Solas), the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention), and some European Human Rights stuff.

UNCLOS defines some jurisdictions:

  • A state fully owns its inland waters.
  • It also owns its territorial waters, which can extend a maximum of 12 nautical miles from its shores (ish—it’s actually 12 miles from the “baseline”, which is a straight-line approximation of the coastline).
  • Between 12 and 24 miles from the coast is the contiguous zone. States can exercise a good deal of clout within their continuous zones to protect their customs, laws (including immigration laws) and regulations.
  • There’s also an economic zone out to 200 miles, which only concerns us insomuch as any water not in any of these zones is “the high seas”—free of all states and reserved for peaceful purposes.
  • All ships must fly the flag of a state and place themselves under its laws (merchant vessels generally pick something economically advantageous, with Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands covering around 40% of the global fleet by tonnage). Enforcement of naval laws by these “flags of convenience” is limited.

States must assist any person in distress at sea (“regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found”), and must also ensure all ships flying their flag do the same. States should cooperate with other states to ensure there are no gaps in SAR coverage, and must ensure anyone rescued reaches a place of safety as soon as possible. Each state has a defined region in which they must coordinate rescues (their SAR region or zone), which aren’t really linked to any sensible measurements. You can be in Malta’s SAR region, yet much closer to Italian territory.

With growing numbers of refugees being rescued, in 2004 the Maritime Safety Committee confirmed that a place of safety does not include territories where the lives and freedom of those rescued might be threatened, and it must include basic human needs (like food, water, shelter, and medical assistance). Screening, assessment and other immigration processes is not allowed to “unduly delay” reaching a place of safety.

The problem in the Mediterranean is that almost all refugees heading for Europe take a similar route: over the sea through the SAR regions of Libya, Malta, and Italy. Libya currently has no effective government so can’t count as a place of safety, and Malta has a population of 440,000 and cannot feasibly land 150,000 immigrants annually.

Italy, therefore, has shouldered most of the SAR burden.

What has Italy done?

Since 18 October 1013 Italy spent €9m a month on operation Mare Nostrum (our sea—the Roman name for the Mediterranean), picking up 150,000 people across the SAR regions of Italy, Malta and Libya. It was a massive operation, with full-time support from over 900 people in the Italian navy alone.

The Italian coastguard took a particularly honest interpretation of what in distress means:

Migrants’ boats are overcrowded, not manned by expert seafarers, they have no lifejackets. Of course they are in distress. The coastguard is the authority which also documents Italian boats’ seaworthiness. We must use the same criteria for all boats. An Italian boat in those conditions would be regarded as unseaworthy.Rome Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC)

It’s hard to disagree with this when you see the state of the boats being used. Can you honestly say that all those on board are not in “grave and imminent danger”?


As soon as a migrant boat launches, Italy has been trying to rescue them.

Who else helped Italy?

Libya has done a bit, and Malta somewhat more (although there have a been a few dodgy incidents where Malta has refused to accept that a migrant vessel was actually in distress, including occasions where all those on board were lost hours later). This isn’t helped by Malta’s massive SAR region, which they’ve refused to shrink despite their limited capabilities.

Disagreements between Malta and Italy – one geographically closer to effect a rescue, the other having primary responsibility for the zone in question – arise regularly, resulting in long delays in any intervention.Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, June 2014

In particular, there was disagreement between Malta and Italy over responsibilities for an incident south of Lampedusa, with a six hour delay between Rome receiving the distress call and a rescue craft reaching the area. Five Italian naval vessels, two merchant ships and two fishing boats ignored Rome’s broadcast in the meantime.


By the time help arrived, the boat was already on the sea floor. Around 200 people died (not all bodies were recovered).

Still taken from footage of the sunken craft. Click for the video (BBC).
Still taken from footage of the sunken craft. Click for the video (BBC).

With the Italian navy at breaking point, Italy requested help from other EU states. Slovenia lent Italy a patrol boat and 40 sailors for a few weeks, but no other nation stepped up.

Italy ended Mare Nostrum on the 01 November, 2014.

Has the EU reacted to the end of Mare Nostrum, and what is Frontex?


The EU border agency Frontex has launched operation Triton in the area south of Sicily to ease the pressure on Italy. All EU member states were asked to contribute equipment, including aircraft, patrol vessels, and personnel. The planned monthly budget of €2.9m is just under a third that of Mare Nostrum, so the capability will be much reduced (they’re aiming for two ocean patrol boats, four coastal patrol boats, two planes, and one helicopter).

Finland, Spain, Portugal, Iceland, the Netherlands, Latvia, Malta and France have all stepped up to offer kit and people.

The UK has offered one person.

There’s a much broader issue behind all of this; most member states in the EU have such obstructive immigration procedures that those seeking asylum are forced to pick this illegal central Mediterranean route to stand any chance of getting into Europe.

I tried going to a number of embassies in Cairo, the German, Belgian, Swedish, trying to get refuge in those countries… We tried our best to travel to Europe in a legal way, but no matter how hard we tried, we were not allowed.Mohamed, 47, from Syria

We are creating the problem by not providing refugees effective, prompt and legal access to safety. You can read more about that (and a critique on the effectiveness of Frontex) in section five of this Amnesty International document.

Why should we help in the UK, and why aren’t we helping?

We should help because we can, and because we are partly responsible for creating the problem.

The UK spends £10,300m each year on international aid, which itself is only 1.4% of our total annual budget. This is spent on a variety of worthy projects, but that doesn’t mean we are morally exempt from doing more. For example, we’ve just found an extra £120m to help fight Ebola. When we want to, we can find the cash.

But are we really responsible for the problem?

Afraid so. European empire-building by the UK, France and Italy set the artificial boundaries of all the key African nations involved, creating conflict as historical homelands were carved apart and entire populations removed or resettled. Our recent ancestors benefited greatly from their actions abroad, generally at the expense of the locals. Perhaps we should now start picking up the tab for their behaviour.

If you need a more recent example, the rise of Isis wouldn’t have happened without the power vacuum created when we intervened in Iraq and Syria (regardless of whether you supported the principles behind those wars).

So why aren’t we helping?

Because helping immigrants is politically unfashionable, I suspect. Our leaders assume we’ll struggle to tell the difference between economic immigration within the EU and the plight of those claiming asylum from war zones. Both are valid and legal reasons to try and enter a country, but floundering in the face of Ukip’s advances and with a general election on the horizon the Conservatives are taking any opportunity to appear hard on immigrants.

If that means watching as the corpses of those fleeing the problems our foreign policy has created wash up against the walls of Fortress Europe, then so be it.

Anything to secure another four years in power, eh?

Photo originally taken by Massimo Sestini. Lifted from Amnesty International's report—click to open.
Photo originally taken by Massimo Sestini. Lifted from Amnesty International’s report.

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