December 04, 2015

Law students research sea rescue of refugees

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Students in the Southern Illinois University School of Law have spent the past several months researching legal issues that surround the sea rescue of refugees who are trying to cross the Mediterranean and migrate to Europe. 

Since June, four students, along with Professor Cindy Buys, have been examining international, national and regional maritime and humanitarian laws to piece together a guide that non-governmental organizations, such as German-based Sea-Watch and Human Rights at Sea, can utilize in assisting in the rescues of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2015 there have been nearly 900,000 arrivals primarily in Italy and Greece of refugees and migrants from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. More than 3,500 are reported dead or missing, as the refugees, including women and children, try to escape war, violence and persecution from within their own countries. 

Buys and her students will discuss their pro bono work at the Southern Illinois chapter of the United Nations Association of the U.S.A. annual Human Rights Day Award dinner. The program begins at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 6, at the Epiphany Lutheran Church, 1501 W. Chautauqua Road, Carbondale. Trial attorney James P. Chapman, founder of the Illinois Institute for Community Law and Affairs, will receive the organization’s annual Human Rights Day Award. 

Laura Alvarado, a third-year law student from Chicago, and Janae Davis, a second-year law student from Atlanta, Ga., are two of the students involved with the project. Alvarado researched laws pertaining the “duty to rescue” refugees on the sea, the differing treaties involved and what rescue vessels are obligated to do upon finding another boat in distress. 

Alvarado said she has enjoyed learning the numerous and different treaties of each country and how they apply in these situations. Alvarado said laws require people rescued at sea be taken to the nearest place of safety. The project also helped her gain a greater understanding of international laws, she said.  

Among the complicating factors are the numerous and often conflicting treaties and laws from the U.N., the European Union, and countries, such as Libya and Turkey, that are not part of European Union. 

Buys said one consideration is whether countries such as Italy and Greece are a safe destination point at this time “when they are so overwhelmed that they cannot provide for these refugees.” One of the research points is whether Sea-Watch or another organization could take refugees to another country, such as Germany, if allowed. Buys said there are misguided proposals for using the military to intercept refugees and force them to return to countries in conflict. 

Davis has been researching whether the ship operators who rescue migrants could face smuggling or assisting with illegal immigration charges. There are international laws that cover providing humanitarian aid, but countries are changing their domestic laws, Davis said. 

While the refugee migration is primarily from northern Africa, many refugees leave from Libya because there is no border control. 

“I was just appalled at the loss of life that was occurring in the seas in the Mediterranean,” Buys said. “I was also very disappointed in the reaction of a lot of the European states not wanting to rescue these migrants and take care of them and figure out whether they had legitimate claims for asylum.” 

Buys was on sabbatical last spring as a visiting professor at Bangor University in Wales and learned of Sea-Watch and its efforts through an attorney who assists the private, non-profit organization. The research project is a good opportunity for students, she said. In addition to their research, it gave students and opportunity to brainstorm various legal theories and approach it from varying perspectives. 

Tamica Stone, a second-year law student, and Nicholas Martin, a third-year law student, are also involved in the research. The roughly 25-page guide is nearly ready to send to Sea-Watch and other organizations for review, Buys said.