Changing state responses in the Central Mediterranean: search and rescue, interdiction, and externalization by Keegan Williams

Keegan_PhotoKEEGAN WILLIAMS is a research and teaching assistant in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. He is also a lecturer at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and works for the International Migration Research Centre (IMRC). Keegan is currently Ph.D. (a.b.d.) in the Waterloo-Laurier Graduate Program in Geography. His research focuses on international migration, global governance, and statistical methodology. He is currently working on his thesis, which explores how states are reconfiguring spaces at sea to manage the movement of people and shift borders in the Central Mediterranean Sea. Keegan’s supervisor is Dr. Alison Mountz.



Frontex, the European Union’s coordinating border agency, reported that 109,055 migrants on 581 boats were intercepted en route to Italy or Malta from North Africa in operations between 1 January and 31 October 2014.[1] While nearly 85% of these migrants likely came from Libya, another 10% departed from Egypt or Tunisia. Eritrea (24%) and Syria (20%) were the most frequent sources of the over 40 nationalities reported, with increasing numbers originating in West Africa from Mali (5%), Nigeria (4%), and Morocco (2%).[2] This piece examines how states have coalesced and externalised their responses to these seaborne asylum-seekers in the Central Mediterranean using search and rescue operations.

Italy and Malta, in conjunction with the European Union, are extending their sovereignty beyond traditional territorial limits at sea using search and rescue regions.[3] These spaces, created by the International Maritime Organization, obligate contracting states to organise and render assistance to ships in distress at sea.[4] Owing to the lack of legal consensus on terms like ‘distress’, ‘rescue’, and ‘place of safety’, the EU has wide discretion in which to interdict migrant boats inside these spaces. Supplements to the Schengen Borders Code, which define operational rules for Frontex during search and rescue, allow member states to board, stop, redirect or even seize ships suspected of carrying irregular migrants.[5] These same rules give priority to disembarkation of all boats in the third state from which the ship originated.[6] By reconceptualising seaborne asylum-seekers as persons in distress in search and rescue regions, over 80% (or 87,613) of migrants in the Central Mediterranean were intercepted outside of EU territory in 2014.[7] Their fates remain unknown.

The management of seaborne asylum-seekers in the Central Mediterranean has been externalised in the past 15 years to prevent their arrival in Europe. Italy and Malta have signed treaties enabling joint search and rescue patrols and the return of interdicted migrants in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.[8] The EU funds member state operations and third state projects in North Africa.[9] Tunisia, for example, accepted 200 million USD in 2011 to readmit nationals deported from Europe.[10] Member states also helped to finance 53 International Organization for Migration (IOM) projects worth more than 40 million USD in the region since 2000 to manage migration before it reached Mediterranean shores.[11] Over 5 million USD, for instance, has been spent since 2006 on the ongoing Prevention and Management of Irregular Migration Flows from Sahara Desert to Mediterranean Sea project[12], which seeks to prevent irregular migration flows from entering or transiting through Libya. As the influx of West African migrants shows, however, tighter border controls secured by externalisation have also led migrants to take longer and more dangerous journeys to enter Europe. The cost of reconceptualising seaborne asylum-seekers, then, is likely much higher than the IOM’s estimate of 3072 lives lost[13] and the EU’s spending 21 million USD on operations in 2014 suggest.[14]


[1] European Agency for Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex). (2014a). Re: Total Migrants and Boats Detected, Intercepted, and Turned Back during JO HERMES, 2007; 2009-2014. Freedom of information request made through Ask the EU. Retrieved from .

[2] European Agency for Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex). (2014b). Concept of reinforced joint operation tackling the migratory flows towards Italy: JO EPN-Triton. Retrieved from .

[3] See Coppens, J. (2013). The Lampedusa Disaster: How to Prevent Further Loss of Life at Sea? The International Journal of Marine Navigation and Safety of Sea Transportation, vol. 7(4): 589-598 and Gammeltoft-Hansen, T. (2008). The Refugee, the Sovereign and the Sea: EU Interdiction Policies in the Mediterranean. DIIS Working Paper no 2008/6. Retrieved from .

[4] Pugh, M. (2004). Drowning not Waving: Boat People and Humanitarianism at Sea. Journal of Refugee Studies, vol. 17(1): 50-69.

[5] The Council of the European Union. (2010). Council Decision 2010/252/EU supplementing the Schengen Borders Code as regards the surveillance of the sea external borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union. Annex Part I, article 2. Retrieved from .

[6] Ibid, Annex Part II, article 2.1.

[7] Supra note 1.

[8] See Ronzitti, N. (2009). The Treaty of Friendship, Partnership, and Cooperation and Libya: New Prospects for Cooperation in the Mediterranean? Bulletin of Italian Politics, vol. 1(1): 125-133 and Supra ii, pg. 3.

[9] The EU, for instance, funded 90% of the costs of Italy’s 2014 Operation Mare Nostrum. See ENPI CBCMED. (2014). Integrated Coastal Zone Management Implementation Overview: Mare Nostrum Project. The European Union. Retrieved from .

[10] (2011, April 12). EU to aid Tunisians’ readmission: Barroso. Retrieved from .

[11] These numbers were collected from all IOM Programme and Budgets during 2000-2014. For more information, see International Organization for Migration. (2014a). Governing Bodies: Council. Retrieved from

[12] The given reference states that the project is suspended, but this is no longer true. It was suspended from 2011-2013 but was reinstated for 2014 (see, pg. 114 – IV.3.1).

[13] International Organization for Migration. (2014b). Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration. Retrieved from .

[14] Supra ii and ix.