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Protection at sea

Protection at sea

War, persecution and human rights violations force people to leave their homes, sometimes crammed into overcrowded, unseaworthy ships.

UNHCR works hard with partners to ensure refugees and migrants can disembark in a safe location and have access to protection, and we are often on the scene to provide assistance and facilitate referrals to service providers.
Syrian refugees on board a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel after being rescued in the Mediterranean sea, off the coast of Lesbos, Greece.

A persistent and deeply concerning feature of refugee and migrants’ movements in many parts of the world is the recourse to dangerous sea crossings.

For many, boarding an unseaworthy boat may appear to be the best option available – in the absence of safer alternatives – to flee conflict or persecution and to seek opportunities to rebuild their lives.

Such crossings bring with them, more often than not, serious risks of injury or death at sea, as well as reckless endangerment of life, exploitation, or violence at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. They also pose complex challenges for States and search-and-rescue actors, including private shipping.

Global Initiative on Protection at Sea

UNHCR’s Global Initiative on Protection at Sea, developed in 2014 in the lead-up to the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection at Sea, sets out the essential elements of a necessary response, with the core goal of supporting action by States to:

  • reduce loss of life at sea, as well as exploitation, abuse and violence experienced by people travelling irregularly by sea, and
  • establish protection-sensitive responses to irregular mixed migration by sea.

Achieving these objectives extends beyond search-and-rescue systems, to early identification of those needing international protection, humane treatment and prevention of refoulement, as well as access to fair and efficient asylum procedures.

UNHCR promotes protection at sea with and alongside States, partner agencies, civil society and the shipping industry, through advocacy, capacity-building and training activities, and legal and policy guidance, including by facilitating regional workshops on search-and-rescue and protection at sea, developing guidance materials, providing training on human rights and refugee protection at sea, and supporting comprehensive approaches to protection at sea.