People have taken the sea in search of safety and/or economic opportunities since the late 1970s and today the movement of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees by sea has become a world-wide phenomenon. In doing so migrants crowd into decrepit ships and are often placed in perilous situations by unscrupulous human smugglers. Furthermore, they find themselves caught up at the intersection of maritime law, refugee law and human rights law: If rescued after a distress call by military or commercial ships (as the maritime law requires) they risk to either be pushed back to their port of origin (possibly in violation of the non-refoulement principle as e.g. in the Hirsi Jamaa v. Italy case of the European Court of Human Rights) or to be prevented from disembarking at the nearest port (as e.g. in the 2001 MV Tampa affair).

The course is intended to (1) shed light on the different legal orders and policies intersecting when dealing with the issue of migrants at sea and (2) to discuss how the human rights of migrants at sea could be effectively protected.