The Briefing Note follows up from the recent Human Rights at Sea independent review of the case of the de-flagging of the M/V Aquarius. The rescue ship had been blocked at the port of Marseilles in France since September, as it could not find a country to register its trips to the Mediterranean, after the Panama Maritime Authority revoked its registration.

The Briefing Note highlights, through examples, the current and worrying trend in some EU Member States to actively seek to criminalise citizens acting as humanitarians, and who provide life-saving assistance to those in distress at sea.


  • EU Member States must assess each incident on a case-by-case basis through competent constabulary and judicial authorities to avoid automatically criminalizing humanitarian assistance provided by individuals and other volunteers to those in distress at sea.
  • There should be a common cooperative SAR framework with collectively available maritime assets backed by meaningful solidarity among EU Member States for the protection of those in distress at sea.
  • The non-derogable human right to life should never be forgotten, nor weighted lesser than other interests be they commercial or political.
  • Member States should never put migrants' lives and security at risk by sending them back to states that are not safe and where their life or personal freedom could be threatened.

Human Rights at Sea was the first maritime-focused human rights organisation in 2016 to raise awareness of potential criminalisation of SAR volunteers in its publication: Volunteer Maritime Rescuers: Awareness of Criminalisation.

This was released in response to the then perceived and emerging threat by some European Union Member States to start to criminalise civil society rescuers then undertaking lawful and necessary humanitarian relief work in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean.

In response to some EU leaders' actions to guarantee their territorial control putting lives in danger, HRAS commented:

EU states have...regrettably prioritized their national interests over their international obligations, thereby further eroding the heart of the idealized unified European model that is founded on the respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law.

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