What does the law ?

What does the law ?
What does the law ?

66 migrants were rescued at sea on May 1, 2024, off the coast of Dieppe (Seine-Maritime). Channel crossings have increased in recent years, as has the number of rescues on the French coast. What are the rights of migrants at sea? What does the law say about reception and rescue?

A tragedy was avoided offshore in the Dieppe Channel (Seine-Maritime) on the morning of May 1, 2024. Around sixty migrants were rescued by a maritime gendarmerie coastal launch. The boat in difficulty was taken care of and the 66 passengers were brought back to the port of Dieppe. According to the Seine-Maritime prefecture, “the migrants were taken care of by a complete system, ensuring reception by a departmental SDIS system and approved civil security associations.” But what are the obligations of theEstatus towards migrants rescued at sea? What are the offshore rescue rules? What the law says ?

Broadly, the first principle is that “tEvery person in a situation of danger must be rescued without having to wonder why they are there, what their destination and intentions are“, according to Jean-Paul Pancracio, professor of public law at the university Paris II Panthéon-Assas.

Saving lives at sea is not a choice, nor a subject of political debate, but an age-old obligation

Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


This is an obligation included in International Convention of 1974 for the Safety of Life at Sea. According to the text, all vessels which become aware of a distress situation involving another vessel nearby have a duty to come to its aid (provided you do not put your own boat in danger). Each coastal state is responsible for implementing rescue operations for people in distress.

Contrary to what is sometimes repeated, maritime law does not require shipwrecked people to be repatriated to the nearest port. The State which intervened with migrants in distress must, on the other hand, find them “a safe harbor” to disembark.

If international law obliges countries to rescue migrants in danger at sea, nothing requires them to welcome them on their territory in the long term. In Dieppe, the situations of the 66 migrants are being studied.on a case-by-case basis by state services“, underlines the prefecture. Since 2015, no viable European mechanism has been found to distribute migrants across the countries of the Union. The distribution proposed by the European Commission and voted on by each State that year did not never really applied; some countries like Hungary refusing to implement this decision. So each member of the EU most often acts with its own law.

If the Dieppe castaways find themselves in an irregular situation or under an obligation to leave French territory (OQTF), they risk being returned to their countries of origin.

International maritime law does not answer this question. In France, national law and international conventions apply. Each person rescued must receive individualized treatment. The shipwrecked person must, without hindrance, be able to request the right of asylum to obtain refugee status. Most often, the processing of these requests is long and tedious, and those who attempt to cross the Channel wish to find refuge in the United Kingdom.

Another fundamental right of a shipwrecked person: a State cannot return a migrant to his country of origin if this country is not considered “safe” within the meaning of the Convention of the European Court of Human Rights. Finally, the Geneva Convention guarantees status to refugees whose country of origin is at war and “where there is a climate of violence, insecurity or discrimination“.

None of the Contracting States [ndlr : la Convention de Genêve] will not expel or return, in any manner whatsoever, a refugee to the borders of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened because of his race, his religion, his nationality, his belonging to a certain group social or political opinions.

Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


Rescuing and at least treating migrant situations individually is obligatory. The authorities are prohibited from turning back towards the sea a boat which wishes to dock if the boat shows “manifestly poor seaworthiness“.

Since the start of 2024, May 1 has been the day with the most crossings or attempted crossings of the Channel according to the Ministry of the Interior. In total, 711 people were counted.



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