Floating sanctuaries: The ethics of search and rescue at sea

Itamar Mann, Julia Mourão Permoser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Search-and-Rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean have been increasingly criminalized. This criminalization has chilled conversation about the ethical dilemmas practitioners face. What, if any, can be the adverse byproducts of rescuing life at sea? In this article, we concentrate on the dilemmas involved in search and rescue (SAR) as rescuers have described them. Our aim is two-fold. The first is to offer a phenomenological account of search-and-rescue dilemmas. The article sheds light on the complexity and nuance of the ethical landscape of maritime rescue, revealing an intricate web of interactions acknowledged by rescuers as posing ethical challenges. The second aim is to offer a conceptual framework for what it is that SAR NGOs are, in fact, doing. We contextualize their actions within the larger terrain of 'border externalization', in which states have moved enforcement activities to extraterritorial zones, where human rights law is diluted or inapplicable. We thus argue that the set of norms underlying NGO rescue practices amounts to a strategy of counter-externalization. The ideal here is that a window of opportunity can be created at sea, where human rights or international law protections more broadly apply, but enforcement powers of states are suspended. By utilizing these legal gray zones to the benefit of migrants, rescuers effectively turn extraterritorial zones from spaces of lawlessness into spaces of resistance. The rescue ship thus becomes a 'floating sanctuary'.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)442-463
Number of pages22
JournalMigration Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press.


  • borders
  • criminalization
  • dilemmas
  • externalization
  • human rights
  • humanitarianism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Geography, Planning and Development


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