European Union and sea borders

A multifaceted willingness of EU’s external border management


Gaëtan Balan

PhD Student Program Human Sea, CDMO,
Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the University of Nantes

French Version

The migrants’ crisis, following the events in Libya, has increased the need for management of the external borders of the European Union. The maritime borders of the Union are the most affected by the arrival of migrants on European shores. Indeed, 1,015,078 people1entered the EU territory in 2015 via the Mediterranean Sea.

The management must be done through both assistance to people in distress at sea in accordance with international obligations2, and border crossing control. Immigration management by sea is one of the priorities of the European Union. The European Agenda for migration3 and the forthcoming establishment of the European Agency Coastguards and Frontiers Guards4 are two particular manifestations of this need. The latter is responsible to fill in for the states, overwhelmed by the migratory pressure on their borders without jeopardizing their sovereignty in the administration of their country, as emphasized MEP Artis Pabriks “There is no reason to worry about the sovereignty (…) Nobody ends the responsibility of a country to defend its own borders.5

This willingness of management6 is also supported by the implementation of the European Operation Sophia7 in the Mediterranean since 2015. The EU seeks to actively fight against the smugglers, who engage in a real “smuggling of migrants” from the coast of Libya, without ensuring minimal safety in their crossing attempts. Once at sea, they are simply abandoned to their fate, with their only hope a single satellite phone and the chance that a vessel pins them and provide assistance. Thus, the High UN Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said “A terrifying number of refugees and migrants die at sea every year; ashore, the people fleeing war cannot continue their journey because the borders are closed.”8

This is why it is necessary to take into account the dimension of “Search and Rescue” incumbent on coastal countries under Article 98 of the UNCLOS9: duty to render assistance “1. Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him; (c) after a collision, to render assistance to the other ship, its crew and its passengers and, where possible, to inform the other ship of the name of his own ship, its port of registry and the nearest port at which it will call. 2.Every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighbouring States for this purpose.” They must manage more and more offshore operations to rescue people in distress that smugglers abandoned off, at best, on boats barely better than perfunctory. Thus the Mediterranean becomes the setting of a humanitarian tragedy, as it is impossible for the coastal authorities to rescue in time all the castaways, as attentive to the calls as they may be. The shared deployment of naval resources at EU level appears as a concrete example of support between Member States in order to manage a problem that affects the whole Union.

The national level, especially in Italy and Greece, became fully aware of the situation and manages the crisis to the best of their abilities, but finds themselves de facto overwhelmed by its scope. National maritime border management becomes an issue that affects every member countries either by coastal management, or indirectly via the free movement within the Union. In this context several countries, including France temporarily restored land border controls. However, although established by the Treaties under Articles 23 to 26 of the Schengen code10,reinstatement of controls at internal borders within the European area does not solve the problem in a sustainable way, but barely delays its eventual consequences.


The key concept is border management, de facto shared through the Schengen mechanism, focusing the European effort on the most porous crossing points. Management at the regional level is a necessity, since the area of free movement impacts all Schengen Member States. It is in this context that took place the bilateral agreement between the EU and Turkey on refugees management
11In order to dismantle the economic model of smugglers and migrants to provide a perspective other than risking their lives, the EU and Turkey have decided today to end illegal migration from Turkey to the EU,” but it still does not appear as a proper long-term solution either legally or from a humanitarian point of view. Bilateral cooperation, however, may appear as an essential milestone in the development of a migration policy, which combines the European Neighbourhood Policy in order to better manage the flow of people wishing to travel in Europe.


This is a major challenge for the EU, who have to overcome this crisis to become stronger and tackle jointly an issue that concerns all of its Member States. Thus, the actual implementation of this agency will measure the ability of the Union to manage and overcome a direct crisis, for which failure is not an option. The Coast Guards and Border Guards Agency can only be a part of the solution to the problem of regulation of the Schengen area, just as the Common Asylum System or the joint management of refugee reception centers, via the European Centre for Harmonisation of asylum law.


This is a major defiance for the Union, who will have to be overcome to secure its own future in a neighbourhood environment that turned more unstable in recent years.

 

  1. European Parliament, World Refugee Day: the situation in Europe. See also “An Open Europe ?” Computer Graphics (20 June 2016). []
  2. International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, United Nations, Adopted on 1 November 1974 entered into force: 25 May 1980, 1980 U.N.T.C []
  3. All of the applicable legislation, as well as various reports on the situation, is on the official page of the European Office for Migration and Home Affairs []
  4. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council. A European corps of border guards and coast guards, and efficient management of the external borders of Europe, COM / 2015/0673 final 11 (2015). []
  5. Artis Pabriks, New border control system: interview with Artis Pabriks, European Parliament (Strasbourg, June 7, 2016). []
  6. European Parliament report on the situation in the Mediterranean and on the need for a global approach to migration from the EU -. noP8_TA-PROV Report (2016) 0 102. Strasbourg [s. n.], 12 April 2016 []
  7. Operation Sophia launched in 22 June 2015 in the Mediterranean by the EU []
  8. .(Statement made during the presentation of the 2015 report of UNHCR. “UNHCR Global Trends 2015”, UNHCR (Lesvos, June 20, 2016). []
  9. United Nations, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. RTNU vol 1834. United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, and the International Seabed Authority, Adopted December 10, 1982 , Entry into force on 16 November 1994. the following Montego Bay Convention []
  10. European Union, Regulation (EC) No 562/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a Community Code on the border crossing regime by persons (Schengen Code) Official Journal of the European Union (15 March 2006). []
  11. European Union, “Press Release: EU-Turkey Declaration,” March 18, 2016. For more details on the agreement see Charles De Marcilly, “EU-Turkey Agreement and Its Implications: A Partnership Must But Under Condition “Scientist, Robert Schuman Foundation, July 13, 2016. []

Une réflexion sur « European Union and sea borders »

  1. If we want to frankly deal with the issue, what is needed is a solution to the problem, not a management of its effects. For that, it is first necessary to confine it onshore in Libya and Turkey. Turkish State’s role needs to be honestly addressed, since it is well-known that the ”smugglers” work hand in hand with the Turkish police and military authorities, that is to say the Turkish State. As long as this element is not fairly addressed, any bilateral ”agreement” between EU and Turkey is condemned to remain a joke. It is surprizing that Brussels seems to disregard this element.
    It is also necessary to deal with the situation in migrants’ countries of origin. We often forget that almost half of the migrants are not Syrians but Pakistanese, Afghans, Irakis and other. Why Afghans and Irakis still leave their countries after 15 years of American and NATO presence? How come Morrocans, Algerians and Nigerians prefer to pass in Europe…through Greece?? Aren’t people, governments, international organizations and NGOs co-responsible of the humanitarian drama taking place the last 2,5 years in the Mediterranean when favouring migration without ensuring first decent host conditions for these people?

    Many issues need to be frankly addressed before talking of any management of the issue. In short, any serious EU external border management needs to take place onshore in Turkey and Libya. Once the problem reaches the sea and then European ground, the game is actually lost, provided of course that the main goal is the security of migrants and the respect of European societies, especially those weakened by prolonged economic austerity.

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