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'Crucial gaps' in the legal framework on search and rescue in the Mediterranean

“Important efforts by member states, Italy in particular, have been engaged towards saving more lives at sea. However, a number of concerns still remain including failures to cooperate, define and admit responsibility and learn lessons” from the latest tragic events, emphasises Tineke Strik (Netherlands, SOC) in her second report on the “left-to-die boat” which will be debated by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) at its next plenary session in Strasbourg (23-27 June 2014).

The left-to-die incident and other tragedies clearly highlighted the urgent need to guarantee fundamental rights, while respecting legitimate security imperatives in terms of border controls. What is lacking is a “common approach to fill crucial gaps in the legal framework on Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean Sea, namely the definition of distress, the obligation to respond immediately to a distress call, irrespective of the SAR zone the call comes from, the criteria for which member states are responsible for disembarkation”, and “the abolition of disincentives for shipmasters and fishermen to conduct rescues”, such as the “threat of prosecution on charges of aiding and abetting irregular immigration,” states the report.

The Committee on Migration, adopting this text unanimously, recommends in particular that the matter be swiftly referred to a Council of Europe committee of experts, the Steering Committee on Human Rights. It also calls for a zero-tolerance approach to lives lost at sea, and recommends that member states end all push-back practices and ensure compliance with the right to seek asylum and the right to be protected against refoulement. Lastly, it calls for greater solidarity for asylum seekers and refugees within the EU and between member states.

As regards asylum within the EU, the committee recommends that the EU take steps to further harmonise the common asylum standards and procedures, by, for example, considering a joint EU processing of asylum applications and the creation of a uniform status.