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.


Last month, a fishing vessel departed Libya, carrying hundreds of people who believed that the treacherous journey they were embarking on would be outweighed by the new life which was awaiting them.

Unseaworthy and overcrowded, the ship capsized and sank on 14 June, with over 100 bodies recovered and countless more missing. The drownings of so many migrants – on average 8 every day last year – is a cause of deep shame for Europe. We cannot keep simply watching as innocent people die at sea.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights dispatched a team to Greece, to gather information on the circumstances around the tragedy, as part of our broader work on upholding fundamental rights in the context of migration and asylum.

What we learned during that mission was used to draft the concrete measures we suggest in this report. This includes a call for better protection for shipwreck survivors and prompt, effective and independent investigations of these tragedies – which continue to occur.

Furthermore, EU Member States must improve search and rescue efforts and provide legal pathways to safety to prevent deaths at sea. Finally, the Agency also calls for the establishment of independent border monitoring, and clear disembarkation rules and solidarity for taking charge of rescued people.

FRA believes that these concrete measures will save lives at sea, while also providing unambiguous steps for the European Union and governments to take to prevent such tragedies.

However, none of them will work as effectively as necessarily without commitment from the EU and Member States, and a realisation that our failure to wake up and properly implement effective measures will ultimately lead to a recurrence of this horrific and senseless incident.

“The right to life has crucial importance both for individuals and for society as a whole. It is most precious for its own sake as a right that inheres in every human being, but it also constitutes a fundamental right, the effective protection of which is the prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other human rights and the content of which can be informed by other human rights.”

The spirit of this text, from Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is one which is reflected in constitutions, religious texts, and customary norms across the world.

It is a spirit which we here in Europe have formally agreed to revere, through our development and ratification of human rights instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 2) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 2). Case law and interpretative guidance relevant to the right of life has reinforced the positive obligation upon States to take appropriate steps to safeguard the lives of all those within their jurisdictions.

There is no hierarchy when it comes to the right to life, nor is it an entitlement bestowed only on European Union citizens. It is not just an abstract notion of those of us who have never known war, persecution, inequality, or environmental destruction. It is a real protection, which carries an explicit obligation for States that are bound to honour it on land and on sea.

Michael O’Flaherty