Introduction: seeking safety on the high seas by Hillary Mellinger

boatcemeteryHow is the Situation of Seaborne Migrants and Asylum Seekers Re-conceptualizing Refugees and Forced Migration in the 21st Century?


HILLARY MELLINGER’s involvement in the ESPMI Network was sparked when she contributed a piece to the journal’s second discussion series. She is thrilled to be part of such an active group of scholars and practitioners, and was honored when the ESPMI Network asked her to help facilitate their third Discussion Series.

The ESPMI Network’s Discussion Series strives to create a forum in which advocates, scholars, practitioners, and students can shed light on prominent global issues and questions. In our third Discussion Series, we focus on state responses to seaborne migrants and the conceptualizations of these migrants over time and in various locations.

This Discussion Series is particularly timely in light of the increasing number of tragedies concerning seaborne migrants traversing the high seas. Although migration across bodies of water is not historically uncommon, the last few years have shown a significant global spike in the number of migrants traveling by sea in search of safety or improved circumstances. Aggregate statistics concerning this form of migration are difficult to attain, but state and regional migration statistics indicate increasing numbers of migrants are being interdicted at sea or, as it too often the case, perishing at sea.[1]

The friction between state sovereignty and international law has become more pronounced with the post-World War II emergence of a robust global human rights regime girded by international law, treaties, and a plethora of judicial entities at the state, regional, and supranational level. This has meant that states’ responses to seaborne migrants are subject to both domestic and international scrutiny. How do states assert their sovereignty over migration flows in a world increasingly characterized by international law and human rights norms, and what does this mean for those who seek safety via seaborne migration?

Seaborne migrants represent a complex policy predicament for states, as they enter a territory through irregular means, but may not be irregular migrants. Irregular migrants are often negatively characterized as illegal economic migrants and criminalized, whereas forced migrants fleeing conflict zones may merit protection under international law. When these two strands of migration intersect, states must accomplish the competing objectives of maintaining national security and protecting human security.

The young scholars contributing to this edition of the Discussion Series place the various tools that states utilize to assert their will over migration flows in stark relief against the role of international law, protection frameworks, and debate on national versus human security. Phillips offers a perspective of seaborne migration in the Horn of Africa and Edis focuses on seaborne migration to Australia. Hinger and Williams position their arguments within the context of the Mediterranean Sea, Denaro looks at Western Europe as a whole, and Tran provides a view of collaborative Western responses to seaborne migrants. Although they focus on different regions of the world, they all scrutinize how seaborne migration is labeled and cite a number of contemporary reference points.

The authors also map the uncertainty and changing nature of seaborne migration and state response in a number of important ways. As Phillips writes, migrants are frequently placed along a “sliding definitional scale” such that they can be considered a refugee at one stage in their journey and an irregular migrant or trafficked person at another. Denaro charts uncertainty by drawing upon a metaphor, where the current refugee protection framework is like a door that can either open or close on aroom that contains various protections and rights. She laments states’ diverging interpretations of the 1951 Refugee Convention and urges us to consider a “revitalization of the right to asylum.” Edis urges states not to sacrifice human security and the protections afforded by international law on the altar of state sovereignty. Hinger similarly questions whether state security is taking precedence over the human security of seaborne migrants in a Mediterranean context. Williams provides a sobering statistical snapshot of the number of lives lost at sea compared to the financial cost of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations and extraterritorial interdiction measures. Finally, Tran concludes by asking why state approaches to and the public opinion of seaborne migrants may have changed since the Indochinese boat crisis, noting the differences that may account for contemporary struggles to provide coordinated relief for those that migrate by sea.


Amnesty International. 2014. “Lives Adrift: Refugees and Migrants in Peril in the Central Mediterranean.” September. Available at: (Accessed May 11, 2015).

UNHCR. 2014. “2014 Becomes the Deadliest Year at Sea Off Yemen.” October 17. Available at: (Accessed April 30, 2015).

UNHRC. 2014. “UNHCR Urges Focus on Saving Lives as 2014 Boat People Numbers Near 350,000.” December 10. Available at: (Accessed April 30, 2015).

U.S. Coast Guard. 2015. “Alien Migrant Interdiction.” May 1. Available at: (Accessed May 11, 2015).

[1] The U.S. Coast Guard publishes statistics on the number of seaborne migrants it interdicts each fiscal year. Page thirteen of a September 2014 report by Amnesty International provides a comparison of the increased volume of Mediterranean seaborne migrants since 2009. Similarly, the UNHRC has documented the rising number of seaborne migrants from the Horn of Africa as well as in the Mediterranean and other regions of the globe.