Washington International Law Journal


On August 26, 2001, the Norwegian cargo ship MV Tampa rescued 438 passengers from a sinking ferry in the Indian Ocean. Most of the rescued were migrants from Afghanistan on their way to Australia. When the Tampa reached Australian waters, it was refused entry and a weeklong standoff between Norway, Indonesia, and Australia ensued. A shipmaster's duty to rescue is well established in international law, recognized by both the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. What is not clear is whether a corresponding legal duty applies to coastal states and transit states when those rescued are migrants seeking asylum. Rescuing migrants at sea is not a new phenomenon, but increased mobility and worsening humanitarian disasters demand a comprehensive international solution that imposes clear legal obligations on states. Closing the gaps in existing law would alleviate the burden on the Good Samaritan and provide for clear, humane, and consistent strategies for dealing with refugees so as to avoid another situation like the Tampa incident.

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