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The Administrative Repression of Search and Rescue: a History

Beyond the criminalisation of civil rescue, states have relied for decades on administrative means of suppressing solidarity at sea. These attempts to restrict rescue operations are couched in technical, bureaucratic language but serve a political end: to limit the movement of people seeking safety.

The Administrative Repression of Search and Rescue: a History

Image Credits: Vietnamese Refugee Archive

Over the past five years, the provision of assistance towards individuals on the move at sea has been increasingly criminalised. NGOs or individuals who have assisted migrants at the border zones of the Mediterranean have been seen to constitute a threat to immigration controls, prompting a mass wave of judicial indictments against those (wrongly) accused of aiding and abetting ‘illegal migration’.

These investigations, however, form only the tip of the iceberg of legal initiatives designed to restrict non-governmental rescue missions. Whilst mechanisms related to human smuggling or trafficking frameworks have become the public face of the clamp down on maritime assistance, they are backed up by a huge variety of other restrictions which are put into effect mainly through administrative law. For instance, state authorities have been able to impound vessels at European ports by citing issues with the flags they are registered to or their declared inability to meet maritime safety regulations and other technical requirements. These restrictions are less visible in the public sphere but they are equally as effective at shutting down civil society efforts to assist people on the move. Attracting considerably less media attention, these suppressions of solidarity are in many ways more obstructive as they are permitted to unfold away from public debates over the legitimacy of such clamp downs.

The deployment of administrative restrictions against rescue NGOs in fact has a long history. The use of bureaucracy and regulation as a policing mechanism has been used extensively by governments in the past to reduce the ability of civil society vessels to access and care for people in distress.

Take this example of the German rescue ship, the Cap Anamur, which operated in the late 1970s and early 1980s to assist Vietnamese ‘boat people’ stranded in the South China Sea. The Cap Anamur was run by the German Emergency Doctors Committee under the leadership of the news correspondent and humanitarian Rupert Neudeck. Despite enjoying huge support from civil society, which donated 1.2 million Deutschmark to its rescue operations in just three days, this NGO’s operations were blocked by governments’ administrative procedures. The Cap Anamur was sailing out to the Anambas islands to begin its rescue patrols, with a telegram from Indonesian authorities giving them permission to sail in Indonesian territorial waters. However, on arrival, the ship was prevented from moving, as Neudeck describes in his book about the project:

Officers from the Indonesian Navy came on board and explained to us […] that the clearance from the Indonesian government is worthless if it is not supplemented by a clearance from the Indonesian Navy, which nobody had known before’.

The Cap Anamur was prevented from conducting its operations until it had received this clearance and was asked to sail to Singapore to obtain it, wasting valuable time at sea caught up in these loopholes. As Neudeck wrote:

We went half mad at the thought that we had this big ship at our disposal, a hospital, six […] doctors and a nurse - and we couldn’t, we weren’t allowed to do anything […] because we didn’t have the right paper yet’.

Three important themes come out of this story of the Cap Anamur, each of which we see also reflected nowadays in the administrative restrictions that are imposed on contemporary NGOs.

First, these bureaucratic mechanisms impounding ships are politically motivated. Whilst restrictions are hidden under a language of technicality and are supposedly focused on the objective measures of health and safety requirements or administrative permissions, the real reason behind them is not technical at all. It is not that governments want to restrict ships operations because they truly care about administrative details. They wish to stop operations because this will slow down rescue efforts and in turn reduce the number of refugees and migrants disembarked on their shores. Administrative details give these states a ‘neutral’ tool which they can use to express their political reticence to welcome outsiders.

Second, these restrictions never take their metric as the safety of individuals at sea. The blocks placed on ships never concern what we might take to be legitimate apprehensions for the safety and wellbeing of individuals on board. Enquiries are not into how guests’ needs will be met: how they will be provided with shelter, food or support for instance. Neither do they focus on how people in distress might be brought on board and whether this process will be safe and efficient. Instead, these measures focus on the ship and its construction, looking at how a vessel complies with the standards imposed by SOLAS regulations for instance. Or they focus on the space in which the ship is operating, focusing on the relevant jurisdictional permissions required to access these spaces. Missing here is any consideration of why these ships wish to operate in the first place – which is to save lives. The humanitarian imperative behind search-and-rescue gets lost in the process of regulation, which takes rescue away from a sense of human survival and turns into a subject of logistical scrutiny.

Third, these restrictions serve to damage NGOs beyond the practical consequence of confining ships. These restrictions have a symbolic function too, which is to discredit the practice of rescue by making it seem unprofessional. In saying that rescue vessels do not meet certain standards or carry the correct paperwork to access certain spaces, governments are able to indirectly attack the professionalism of assistance efforts. Calling out a rescue vessel for not complying to certain operational standards (standards which, as we have seen above, often have little to do with saving lives) implies that these vessels and their crew are not qualified or proficient at what they do. Connections like this delegitimise the practice of assistance at sea, making it appear negligent and amateur and feeding into a harmful narrative of maritime rescue as something objectionable.

As the history of the Cap Anamur shows, and as many contemporary NGOs can attest to, states gain maximum enforceability over rescue efforts not simply by using criminal proceedings but through the use of administrative checks and restrictions. The German Federal Ministry of Transport’s amendment to ship security regulations in 2019 stands as a noticeable example of this. The imposition of bureaucratic hurdles to prevent rescue is something that states have relied on for decades, and the damage which these restrictions have on solidarity and assistance is far reaching.

About the author: Imogen Dobie is a PhD researcher based at the Department for International Development in Oxford, UK. Her research examines historical and contemporary responses to displacement at sea. She is currently undertaking a work placement at the Sea-Watch Legal Aid Fund.