Preventing and responding to deaths at sea: what the European Union can do

Following yet another recent tragic shipwreck and loss of life in the Mediterranean, this short report sets out examples of actions the EU could take to meet its obligations to protect the right to life and prevent more deaths at sea. As part of the work that the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) does on upholding fundamental rights in asylum and return procedures, this report calls for better protection for shipwreck survivors, and prompt and independent investigations. It sets out measures that EU Member States should take to improve search and rescue efforts and provide legal pathways to safety to prevent deaths at sea.


On the night of 13-14 June 2023, an unseaworthy and overcrowded fishing boat capsized some 50 miles off the coast of Peloponnese, Greece. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), survivors estimated that there were around 750 passengers on the ship. During the rescue operation coordinated by the Hellenic Coast Guard, 104 people were saved, of which 96 were men and eight were unaccompanied boys. [1] Information provided to FRA by the Greek Reception and Identification Service during the visit to Malakasa Reception and Identification Centre, 18 June 2023 and over the phone on 3 July 2023. In addition, 82 bodies were found. [2] Hellenic Coast Guard, Continuation of information regarding a broad operation of search and rescue of foreigners in international waters, 47 n.m. southwest of Pylos (Συνέχεια ενημέρωσης αναφορικά με ευρεία επιχείρηση έρευνας και διάσωσης αλλοδαπών σε διεθνή ύδατα στη θαλάσσια περιοχή 47 ν.μ. νοτιοδυτικά Πύλου), 23 June 2023. The rest remain missing. Speaking to the press, survivors said that there were also women and children, staying under the deck. The people on board were Egyptians, Pakistanis, Syrians and of other nationalities. The boat had departed from Tobruk in Libya. This is not the first time that an overcrowded boat unfit for navigating the journey has left Cyrenaica in Eastern Libya, bound for Italy.

Every year, in its Fundamental Rights Report, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) provides data on the number of migrants and refugees who die or go missing trying to reach Europe by sea. [3] FRA (2023) Fundamental Rights Report 2023, 8 June 2023. In the first quarter of 2023, the number of fatalities at sea were highest since 2017. [4] International Organisation for Migration, Deadliest Quarter for Migrants in the Central Mediterranean Since 2017, 12 April 2023. In March 2023, FRA’s Director Michael O’Flaherty identified the need to save lives as the first of five priority actions to address the fundamental rights challenges at the EU’s external borders. [5] FRA, speech by the Director, People on the move; Their rights – our future | European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (europa.eu), Zagreb, 15 March 2023.

In the week following the tragic incident, FRA dispatched a mission to Greece and to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw to understand the circumstances around the incident. The mission was part of its broader work on upholding fundamental rights at border. [6] FRA (2022), Single Programming Document 2023-2025, project B.3.4, p. 65. FRA visited the initial reception facility in Malakasa (Attica Region) where the authorities transferred the shipwreck survivors. FRA had meetings with the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum (including the Fundamental Rights Officer at the Ministry), the Reception and Identification Service (RIS), the Greek Ombudsman, the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, and UNHCR in Greece. In Warsaw, FRA met with staff of the Frontex Situational Centre and with the Fundamental Rights Office.

People fleeing by boat to escape war or danger and seek refuge elsewhere is not a new, nor solely a European phenomenon. The term ‘boat people’ was first used to describe the situation witnessed in the South Chinese Sea between 1970 and 1980. Large numbers of people fled their country by sea in the Gulf of Bengal, the strait of Aden in the Red Sea, the Caribbean and from Indonesia to Australia. [7] See, for further information, UNHCR, Left adrift at sea, Dangerous Journeys of refugees across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, January 2020 – June 2021, 19 August 2021; UNHCR, More than 50,000 people risked perilous Gulf of Aden crossing last year, news item, 9 January 2009; UNHCR, The state of the world's refugees 1993: The Challenge of Protection, Chapter 2: asylum under threat, Box 2.3 Haitian Boat People, 1 January 1993; Parliament of Australia, Department of Parliamentary Services, Research paper, Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976, statistical appendix updated 23 July 2013; Bronee, S. A. (1993), The History of the Comprehensive Plan of Action, International Journal of Refugee Law, Volume 5, Issue 4, 1993, pp. 534–543, 1 January 1993 (on Vietnamese boat people); United States Department of State, Fact Sheet released by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration on the Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Orderly Departures Programme, 18 January 2000.

Reducing the death toll in the Mediterranean Sea is complex and cannot be resolved by the European Union (EU) and its Member States alone. As FRA pointed out in its 2013 report on Fundamental rights at Europe’s southern sea borders, only a comprehensive approach including all relevant states, EU bodies, international organisations and other parties involved can succeed in putting an end to the high death toll in the Mediterranean Sea.

This is yet another example of the need for Member States to come together and create orderly safe pathways for people forced to flee and for comprehensive action to save lives at sea and reduce perilous journeys.”

UN General Secretary, António Guterres, UN news, 14 June 2023

Nevertheless, the EU and its Member States could take action which does not depend on cooperation with other parties. This short report identifies six areas of intervention suggesting several concrete measures to tackle the increasing death toll at sea. [8] This short FRA report does not cover the fundamental rights issues relating to search and rescue vessels deployed by civil society actors. For this, see FRA, June 2022 Update – Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean and fundamental rights, 20 June 2022.

  • Prompt, effective and independent investigations
    • EU Member States to investigate all shipwreck incidents in which people die promptly and effectively, respecting the procedural requirements established by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights;
    • EU Member States to seek the expertise of specialised human rights bodies in the investigations, such as National Preventive Mechanisms and Ombud institutions, where compatible with their mandate;
    • The EU legislator should consider applying the transparency and accountability principles developed to investigate maritime incidents to shipwreck incidents. These principles currently apply in the context of maritime transport activities and are laid out in Directive 2009/18/EC (which is currently under review), but could also apply to shipwreck incidents, which typically involve overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels, occurring in the context of border management;
  • Improved search and rescue at sea
    • European Commission and EU Member States to agree on a procedure to record all search and rescue operations where Frontex is involved or has provided support, and to share the recorded information;
    • Frontex to develop together with EU Member States a protocol of action to take when aerial surveillance assets sight a vessel in an emergency situation, and they alert the national authorities. Such a protocol could entail for example a requirement to inform Frontex about their follow up actions;
    • European Commission to propose to the recently re-activated European Contact Group on Search and Rescue to exchange information on search and rescue protocols and develop best practices in the context of border management;
    • EU Member States to review and adjust their search and rescue protocols based on best practices;
    • European Commission to consider linking EU funding for maritime border management to the adoption of and adherence to operational protocols which reflect best practices and ensure timely assistance to people in imminent danger at sea;
    • Member States to ensure that everyone involved in search and rescue operations are trained in de-escalation, to be best equipped to engage in negotiations with those in charge of a vessel in distress;
    • The European Border and Coast Guard to collectively ensure that sufficient appropriate naval assets are deployed in open sea areas, where risk analysis suggests shipwrecks are more likely to occur;
  • Clear disembarkation rules and solidarity for taking charge of rescued people
    • The EU legislator to include a special mechanism for people disembarked following a search and rescue operation, when negotiating the Regulation on Asylum and Migration Management, as proposed by the European Commission;
    • EU Member States to extend the timeframe of the voluntary solidarity mechanism established in June 2022 beyond one year, to increase the number of relocations and to include all people in need of international protection, regardless of their nationality;
  • Better protection of shipwreck survivors
    • EU legislator to list shipwreck survivors who request international protection as an explicit category of asylum applicants with special needs;
    • The EU Asylum Agency, in cooperation with Frontex, to develop EU-wide guidance for shipwreck survivors in asylum and return procedures;
  • Establishing independent border monitoring
    • EU Member States to establish independent border monitoring mechanisms building on the guidance published by FRA;
  • More accessible legal pathways to the EU
    • EU Member States to offer more legal pathways to persons in need of international protection by increasing resettlement places, promoting other humanitarian admission programmes and giving them priority when allocating EU funding;
    • European Commission and Member States to design the envisaged EU Talent Partnerships to cover all economic areas where there are labour shortages in the EU, including low-skilled labour. The Talent Partnerships could be designed to offer labour mobility options commensurate to the labour market shortages in the EU and provide for simple, accessible procedures and requirements;
    • EU and its Member States to include refugees and other persons in need of international protection in the EU Talent Partnerships.