Humanitarian rescue or human trafficking? New law causes confusion for rescues at sea

UK government proposals aimed at prosecuting migrant traffickers leaves confusion on whether rescues at sea off the UK coast could lead to prosecution

In a move aimed at reducing illegal migration across the Channel, the UK government is proposing legislation to make it easier to prosecute traffickers, but it could have a knock-on impact for organisations or sailors who find themselves involved in rescues at sea.

The Nationality and Borders Bill proposes big changes to the asylum system but it also makes an offence to facilitate asylum-seekers’ arrival in the UK, and there is no specific exemption for humanitarian rescues at sea.

Concerns have been raised that yacht skippers or other seafarers who assist distressed vessels in the Channel be prosecuted if the rescued turn out to be entering the UK illegally.

In response to a question from barrister George Peretz QC, the Home Office replied (on Twitter, so not an official statement) ‘this doesn’t apply to organisations such as HM Coastguard and RNLI helping those in distress at sea.’

Peretz responded: ‘What about individuals or shipping companies rescuing people in distress at sea?

What, exactly, are the boundaries of the conduct to which this offence is said not to apply? Unexplained assertions – in a tweet or even by minister in Parliament – don’t cut it. The answers should be in the text of the legislation. But they aren’t.’

RNLI crew heading out into the English Channel – the volunteer service is the first to respond in many rescues at sea

The Bill is being opposed by the Law Society and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. 

International law does recognise an obligation to assist those in distress at sea.

‘‘This duty is based on a long-standing and strongly felt moral obligation among seafarers. It is stated, for example, in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 98 the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Regulation V-33. All states recognise this duty,’ notes Erik Røsaeg, professor at the Scandinavian Institute of Maritime Law on a report for Oxford University Faculty of Law. 

‘It is sometimes suggested that migrant vessels… are so unseaworthy, overloaded and in such bad shape that they are unlikely to make it to the destination. It is thus suggested that the rules of maritime rescue do not apply. I can see no legal basis for this argument.’

A day with the Falmouth Coastguard, Britain’s busiest maritime rescue centre

On a headland outside the town Falmouth Coastguard station looks out to sea like a sentinel. Binoculars lie on the…

Aboard Richard Cox Scott

On Exercise with RNLI

Video taster as I joined Falmouth RNLI on exercise in 50kts+ of wind