Today I kicked off the first meeting of the European Contact Group on Search and Rescue. Its goal: to set up a European approach to saving lives at sea.

To begin with, we must prevent people from getting into a smuggler’s boat in the first place. I am already working with partner countries to prevent and counter migrant smuggling. And soon I will present my EU action plan against migrant smuggling.

But in those cases where boats will continue making dangerous crossings, we will need to take our responsibility and save lives.

Saving lives at sea is a moral duty and a legal obligation. Since 2015, EU and Member States’ operations have rescued 620,000 people from the water. And it’s not just the coast guard we can thank.

Non-governmental organisations are operating ships with the goal to save people at sea. Last year, these NGO ships rescued in total 3,597 people from the water. I applaud their efforts.

And Europe’s fishermen, transport ships and tankers also save desperate people from the waves. Last year, commercial ships saved 423 people from the Mediterranean in 6 rescue operations.
And this year so far, commercial ships rescued 383 people in 3 operations.

Like Sicilian Fisherman Gaspare Giarratano – who rescues migrants as a way to honour his dead son. He says he cannot stand by when human beings ask for help “who are sometimes children and sometimes look at us with my son's eyes”.

But it’s not plain sailing.

In too many instances the ships involved today in search and rescue activities are not built to house large numbers of traumatised people for long periods of time. People sleep on thin blankets on the steel decks, between barrels and pieces of machinery. Or in dirty cattle cages – as happened on an animal transport ship. People need water, food and medical aid – and commercial ships are not adapted for that. This puts huge pressure on crews, who do their best to help. The longer people stay on board, the greater the pressure.

Shipping associations contact me to express their concerns. Captains have a duty to save lives, but are also concerned for people’s safety on board. Captains need predictability, and want to bring people to safety on land as soon as possible, in line with international law.

Operations by non-governmental organisations bring a new form of search and rescue to the European maritime landscape– or rather seascape – increasing the need for cooperation. Between ships and authorities, between Member States. Because search and rescue operations at sea are fast moving operations, often involving many ships, many people in need of rescue, and many Member States.

If the situation at sea is complicated, so is the political and legal situation.

For example: Ships must ensure safety for everyone on board. And the picture is complicated by the different and overlapping responsibilities of Member States.

They can be flag states, where rescue vessels are registered.
They can be in charge of rescue operations.
They can be responsible for taking care of rescued people.
They can be home countries, of non-governmental organisations or shipping companies.
And sometimes several of the above all at once.

In such circumstances, a European approach can help. Above all, from the encouragement given to better coordination and cooperation between Member States. To better manage search and rescue – from saving people from the water to bringing them to dry land.

Last September, I presented this European contribution in my Recommendation on Search and Rescue. This Recommendation reminds Member States: Captains need to be quickly relieved of their responsibility for rescued people.

To shape this European approach concretely, I set up the European Contact Group on Search and Rescue that starts its work today. This brings together a group of experts representing all Member States and Schengen countries, who will exchange information and experiences, suggest improvements, and work towards a more European framework for search and rescue with migration in mind.

This group will work with all relevant parties to improve search and rescue. Including our Agencies and the International Maritime Organisation. Including also ship owners and non-governmental organisations.

It is the European Contact Group on Search and Rescue’s task to bring clarity in this situation. To improve cooperation, coordination and information exchange between Member States. To take the first steps towards a European approach on search and rescue.

This contact group is an important concrete result of our New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.

I met the Contact Group in its very first meeting this morning. In my speech I stressed the importance of their task: to save lives at sea and better manage migration. I will follow very closely the work of this group and look forward to seeing their results.

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