Death at Sea: Dismantling the Spanish Search and Rescue System

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Successive migration ‘crises’ in the Mediterranean have led to renewed scrutiny of search-and-rescue (SAR) logics along the southern European border. This article focuses on the Spanish approach to maritime SAR, which has received relatively less attention than the two other approaches present in the region: the militarised approach and the NGO approach. I use administrative data, budgetary information, and qualitative interviews to discuss the evolution of SASEMAR, the civil and public Spanish SAR agency that has traditionally embraced an expansive interpretation of both humanitarianism and Spain’s legal obligations to protect life at sea. I argue that, with the evolution of the southern EU border, SASEMAR has become an obstacle in the harmonisation of SAR approaches in the region–a process defined by the criminalisation of acts of solidarity not carried or sanctioned by the state, the adoption of a minimalistic interpretation of humanitarianism, and the placing of rescue obligations in the hands of militarised agencies. To remove this obstacle, the Spanish government is reclaiming and re-appropriating SASEMAR’s structure using three main strategies: the precarisation of rescue crews, the territorial externalisation of SAR responsibilities to Morocco, and the transfer of SAR decision-making powers to national, supranational, and international agencies with close links to the military.




Vives, L. (2021). Death at Sea: Dismantling the Spanish Search and Rescue System. Geopolitics.

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