Towards a European regime of sea border rescue operations?

How is it possible to avoid conflict of competences between Member States concerning the surveillance of maritime borders in the south of the Mediterranean, as well as possible conflict concerning the responsibility to rescue vessels in danger or to reject illegal immigrants at the border?

These questions have been raised several times in the past by both the press and assiduous public opinion. Starting from the case of Cap Anamur, debates spread at the European Union level, where the control of the external borders of the Schengen area is now regulated by the Schengen Borders Code (which entered into force on 13 October 2006, CE Regulation  N. 562/2006 of the EP and the Council).

In fact the Schengen Code does not include a comprehensive regulation on sea borders control although it foresees, respectively in articles 12 and 13, surveillance modalities and rejection by costal guards. (*)

Events related to marine assistance and rescue are not regulated and therefore Member States refer to international conventions (and related protocols) such as the Montego Bay United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 – UCLOS- which requires the master of a ship to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger or distress under article 10 of the 1989 Convention on salvage, or, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea of 1974 (SOLAS), – and more importantly  the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue of1979 –SAR-.

The main problems arises at the particle level. Thought the regulation may be consistent, the implementation varies widely between Member States. As the European Commission pointed out in its Study on the international law instruments in relation to illegal immigration by sea in 2007, “There is indeed a duty to respect fundamental rights when implementing the Schengen Code, but it is not stated explicitly in relation to surveillance operations. As regards the principle of non-refoulement, there are differences in the Member States’ interpretations of this principle of international law, with some Member States, for example, contesting its applicability in international waters.”

“Another difference between Member States relates to how they identify a situation requiring assistance: for some Member States the vessel must be on the point of sinking; for others it is sufficient for the vessel to be unseaworthy; some Member States require the people on board to request assistance, while others do not. The proposal is based on the SAR system and stipulates that as soon as there is any question about the safety of a vessel or a person the SAR authorities must be contacted and given all the information they need to determine whether or not this is an SAR situation According to the Sar Convention each search and rescue area have been delimited for each of  the country concerned search and rescue regions for which they are responsible and these regions do not necessarily correspond to the existing maritime borders.”

The SAR Convention also imposes a precise obligation to rescue and assist persons and ships in distress at sea regardless of nationality, status or circumstances in which the persons are found. The obligations relating to search and rescue include the transport to a safe place.

According to the Commission “Deciding where the people rescued should be taken is a difficult question and is seen as one of the weaknesses of the SAR system. The 2004 amendments require all states to cooperate in resolving SAR situations; the state responsible for the SAR region must, with their cooperation, decide where those rescued will be taken. One Member State did not accept these amendments. A particular point of contention was where those rescued should be disembarked if the state responsible for the SAR region failed to fulfil its obligations in this respect. Some Member States are reluctant to take part in operations because they fear that they will end up having to take those rescued to their own country.”

Such difficulties often become emergencies for the persons involved in the rescue operations. Therefore, last November the Commission suggested to integrate the Schengen Code with the main international norms applicable in the field of marine search and rescue and the disembarking of individuals in safe harbours in order to guarantee fair and equal treatment at the European level and clear signing rules especially when surveillance operations take place under the coordination of the Frontex Agency.

Initially, the proposal did not obtain the support of national experts; however it may go through after the abstention of Italy and Malta.

If the Council adopts it, it will then be up to the European Parliament to intervene. In this case the legislative assembly will have time up to the 7 April to raise its objections concerning the procedure followed by the European Commission to integrate these provisions within the Schengen Code.

The European Commission defined these provisions as purely implementing measures (which seems a rather brave interpretation given the nature of their content), allowing therefore for their quicker adoption than if they were considered as measures having a fundamental impact in the Code. Within a few weeks it will be possible to know what will be the outcome of this, nonetheless, good initiative of the Commission.
EDC.

(*)From the SCHENGEN CODE
Article 12

Border surveillance

1. The main purpose of border surveillance shall be to prevent unauthorised border crossings, to counter cross-border criminality and to take measures against persons who have crossed the border illegally.

2. The border guards shall use stationary or mobile units to carry out border surveillance. That surveillance shall be carried out in such a way as to prevent and discourage persons from circumventing the checks at border crossing points.

3. Surveillance between border crossing points shall be carried out by border guards whose numbers and methods shall be adapted to existing or foreseen risks and threats. It shall involve frequent and sudden changes to surveillance periods, so that unauthorised border crossings are always at risk of being detected.

4. Surveillance shall be carried out by stationary or mobile units which perform their duties by patrolling or stationing themselves at places known or perceived to be sensitive, the aim of such surveillance being to apprehend individuals crossing the border illegally. Surveillance may also be carried out by technical means, including electronic means.

5. Additional rules governing surveillance may be adopted in accordance with the procedure referred to in Article 33(2). (Paragraph modified by the (CE) Regulation N. 296/2008 of the European Parliament and the Council of 11 March  2008)

Article 13

Refusal of entry

1. A third-country national who does not fulfil all the entry conditions laid down in Article 5(1) and does not belong to the categories of persons referred to in Article 5(4) shall be refused entry to the territories of the Member States. This shall be without prejudice to the application of special provisions concerning the right of asylum and to international protection or the issue of long-stay visas.

2. Entry may only be refused by a substantiated decision stating the precise reasons for the refusal. The decision shall be taken by an authority empowered by national law. It shall take effect immediately.

The substantiated decision stating the precise reasons for the refusal shall be given by means of a standard form, as set out in Annex V, Part B, filled in by the authority empowered by national law to refuse entry. The completed standard form shall be handed to the third-country national concerned, who shall acknowledge receipt of the decision to refuse entry by means of that form.

3. Persons refused entry shall have the right to appeal. Appeals shall be conducted in accordance with national law. A written indication of contact points able to provide information on representatives competent to act on behalf of the third-country national in accordance with national law shall also be given to the third-country national.

Lodging such an appeal shall not have suspensive effect on a decision to refuse entry.

Without prejudice to any compensation granted in accordance with national law, the third-country national concerned shall, where the appeal concludes that the decision to refuse entry was ill-founded, be entitled to correction of the cancelled entry stamp, and any other cancellations or additions which have been made, by the Member State which refused entry.

4. The border guards shall ensure that a third-country national refused entry does not enter the territory of the Member State concerned.

5. Member States shall collect statistics on the number of persons refused entry, the grounds for refusal, the nationality of the persons refused and the type of border (land, air or sea) at which they were refused entry. Member States shall transmit those statistics once a year to the Commission. The Commission shall publish every two years a compilation of the statistics provided by the Member States.

6. Detailed rules governing refusal of entry are given in Part A of Annex V.

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