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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2014

Natalie Klein*
Macquarie University,


Maritime interceptions continue as a fundamental dimension to external border controls against irregular migration, as seen most recently in Australia's institution of Operation Sovereign Borders in late 2013. The practice of developed States has highlighted the varied application and interpretation of four bodies of international law: the law of the sea, search and rescue obligations, refugee obligations and international human rights law. This article assesses this practice and the use of laws, highlighting the fragmentation of international law that has resulted. A proposal is presented to harmonize these laws and reconcile the divergent policy perspectives of different stakeholders.

Copyright © British Institute of International and Comparative Law 2014 

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1 The term ‘irregular migrants’ is used in this article to encompass the trend of mixed migration whereby economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees may all use the same routes to arrive in another country. The designation as ‘irregular’ migrants is intended to indicate that the arrival may not be in accordance with the migration laws and asylum processes of the destination country. See International Organization for Migration, Glossary on Migration (2011) <>.

2 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines ‘interception’ as: ‘all measures applied by a State, outside its national territory, in order to prevent, interrupt, or stop the movement of persons without the required documentation crossing international borders by land, air or sea, and making their way to the country of prospective destination’. UNHCR Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Program, Interception of Asylum Seekers and Refugees: The International Framework and Recommendations for a Comprehensive Approach, Doc. EC/50/SC/CRP.17 (9 June 2000) para 10.

3 In 2012, 17,204 irregular migrants arrived in Australia by boat, with 20,587 individuals reaching Australia in 2013. Refugee Council of Australia, ‘Statistics on asylum seekers arriving in Australia’ (2014) <>.

4 See, eg, James Glenday, ‘Asylum seekers: Releasing Operation Sovereign Borders details not in the national interest, Scott Morrison tells Senate committee’, ABC News (4 February 2014) <>.

5 George Roberts, ‘Another orange lifeboat carrying asylum seekers arrives on Indonesia's Java coast: military source’, ABC News (25 February 2014) <>; George Roberts, ‘Indonesia says second asylum seeker boat forced back by Australian Navy’, ABC News (4 February 2014) <>.

6 The Tampa incident involved the rescue of over 400 asylum seekers by the Norwegian cargo vessel, the MV Tampa, and Australia's refusal to allow the vessel into its port and subsequent forcible boarding of the vessel. The facts and relevant legal principles are discussed in Rothwell, DR, ‘The Law of the Sea and the MV Tampa Incident: Reconciling Maritime Principles with Coastal State Sovereignty’ (2002) 13 PLR 118Google Scholar.

7 For discussion, see P Mathew, ‘Australian Refugee Protection in the Wake of the Tampa’ (2002) 96 AJIL 661.

8 See eg Guilfoyle, D, Shipping Interdiction and the Law of the Sea (Cambridge University Press 2012) 187–97Google Scholar and Kramek, JE, ‘Bilateral Maritime Counter-Drug and Immigrant Interdiction Agreements: Is this the World of the Future’ (2000) 31 UMiamiInter-AmLRev 121, 142–5Google Scholar.

9 Mathew, P, ‘Legal Issues Concerning Interception’ (2003) 17 GeoImmigrLJ 221, 230Google Scholar.

10 Case of Hirsi Jamaa v Italy, Appl no 27765/09 (European Court of Human Rights, Judgment of 23 February 2012) <> (‘Hirsi’).

11 ibid para 65 and para 79.

12 As noted by Rousseau, ‘lorsqu'il est en presence de deux accords de volontés divergentes, il doit être tout naturellement porté à rechercher leur coordination plutôt qu’à consacrer à leur antagonisme’. Charles Rousseau, ‘De la compatabilité des norms juridiques contradictoires dans l'ordre international’ (1932) 39 RGDIP 153, cited in Martii Koskenniemi, ‘Fragmentation of International Law : Difficulties Arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law: Report of the Study Group of the International Law Commission’, UN Doc. A/CN.4/L.682 (13 April 2006) para 37.

13 Guilfoyle (n 8) 75.

14 Convention on the High Seas (opened for signature 29 April 1958, entered into force 30 September 1962) 450 UNTS 11, art 22.

15 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (opened for signature 10 December 1982, entered into force 16 November 1994) 1833 UNTS 3, art 99 (‘UNCLOS’).

16 See Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air Supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (opened for signature 12 December 2000, entered into force 28 January 2008) 40 ILM 384 (2001) art 8. Note, however, that other States may only act with the consent of the flag State.

17 For an overview, see Kramek (n 8).

18 For discussion, see Guilfoyle (n 8) 79–96, 232–58; Klein, N, Maritime Security and the Law of the Sea (Oxford University Press 2011) 130–6, 184–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Guilfoyle (n 8) 193.

20 ibid 193–5.

21 Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Dominican Republic concerning Maritime Migration Law Enforcement (signed 20 May 2003, entered into force 20 May 2003) 2003 UST Lexis 32. See further Guilfoyle (n 8) 196.

22 Agreement to Stop Clandestine Migration of Residents of Haiti to the United States (exchange of letter 23 September 1981) (1981) 20 ILM 1198.

23 Guilfoyle (n 8) 189–90.

24 US Executive Order 12807 of 23 May 1992, 57 Fed Reg 23, 133 (1992). See further Guilfoyle (n 8) 190.

25 Sale v Haitian Centers Council Inc (1993) 509 US 155, 158–159.

26 See ibid 181–2.

27 See Papastavridis, E, ‘Interception of Human Beings on the High Seas: A Contemporary Analysis under International Law’ (2009) 36 Syracuse JIntlL&Com 145, 180Google Scholar.

28 ibid 180.

29 ibid 179.

30 Fischer-Lescano, A, Löhr, T and Tohidipur, T, ‘Border Controls at Sea: Requirements under International Human Rights and Refugee Law’ (2009) 21 IJRL 256, 256CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The Migration Policy Centre estimates an average of almost 40,000 persons per year over the period of 1998–2013. See P De Bruycker et al, ‘Migrants smuggled by sea to the EU: facts, laws and policy options’ (Migration Policy Centre Research Report 2013/0+, 2013) <>.

31 Papastavridis (n 27) 148–9. For discussion, see Moreno-Lax, V, ‘Seeking Asylum in the Mediterranean: Against a Fragmentary Reading of EU Member States' Obligations Accruing at Sea’ (2011) 23 IJRL 174CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Moreno-Lax (n 31) 180–1.

33 Ibid 182–4.

34 These are discussed in Hirsi (n 10) paras 19–21.

35 Moreno-Lax (n 31) 182 (referring to a series of Framework Agreements and Memoranda of Understanding between Spain and relevant African States). See also Papastavridis (n 27) 182.

36 These are discussed in Papastavridis (n 27) 182–3.

37 Council Decision of 26 April 2010 supplementing the Schengen Borders Code as regards the surveillance of the sea external borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (2010/252/EU).

38 ibid para 1.2.

39 European Parliament v Council of the European Union (European Court of Justice, Case C-355/10, 5 September 2012). The basis for the decision was the failure to gain parliamentary approval for such a significant change to the Schengen Borders Code. The effects of the Guidelines are to continue until a new regulation is adopted.

40 European Commission Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing rules for the surveillance of the external sea borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, COM(2013) 197 final.

41 De Bruycker (n 30) 11.

42 See (n 161) further below.

43 Joint Press Conference of Prime Minister John Howard and the Minister of Immigration the Hon Philip Ruddock, cited in Fox, PD, ‘International Asylum and Boat People: The Tampa Affair and Australia's “Pacific Solution”’ (2010) 25 MdJIntlL 356Google Scholar, n 62.

44 Taylor, S, ‘Protection Elsewhere/Nowhere’ (2006) 18 IJRL 283, 295–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 For discussion, see ibid 295–300.

46 See discussion in Guilfoyle (n 8) 206–8.

48 Government information on Operation Sovereign Borders may be accessed at <>.

49 See George Roberts et al. ‘Passengers describe drama of turning asylum seeker boats back’ ABC 7.30 Report (transcript) (17 March 2014) <>.

50 See (n 76) and accompanying text.

51 Australian Customs and Border Protection Service, ‘Joint Review of Positioning of Vessels Engaged in Operation Sovereign Borders - Executive Summary’ (19 February 2014) <>.

52 UNCLOS (n 15) art 2 and art 3.

53 Ibid art 27 and art 28.

54 The US agreement with the Dominican Republic allows for entry to render emergency assistance when needed to migrant smuggling vessels. Agreement concerning Cooperation in Maritime Migration Law Enforcement (n 21) art 5(6). Italy was authorized by its agreement with Libya to undertake joint patrols in Libya's territorial waters. Hirsi (n 10) para 19.

55 UNCLOS (n 15) art 17.

56 ibid art 19(2)(g). Moreno-Lax has suggested that passage for the purpose of requesting international protection as a refugee should not be in violation of the migration laws of a country, provided their migration laws have implemented rules regarding asylum. Moreno-Lax (n 31) 191.

57 On this point, Barnes has commented: ‘Although the exercise of this power in this way might be morally repugnant it is not per se unlawful and difficult to challenge.’ Barnes, R, ‘Refugee Law at Sea’ (2004) 53 ICLQ 47, 57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

58 UNCLOS (n 15) art 33.

59 UNCLOS (n 15) art 87 and Pt VII, generally. The Exclusive Economic Zone is not addressed here as irregular migration is not a matter over which the coastal State has sovereign rights or jurisdiction for that zone but the relevant assessment is under the rules relating to the high seas.

60 UNCLOS (n 15) art 89.

61 ibid art 111.

62 ‘[I]t is very often the case that the transportation of the persons in question is carried out using non-registered small vessels, without name or flag, i.e. stateless vessels’. Papastavridis (n 27) 6. However, Guilfoyle has noted that national laws allow for the owner's nationality to determine the nationality of these vessels. Guilfoyle (n 8) 16.

63 UNCLOS, art 110(1)(d) and (e).

64 Churchill, RR and Lowe, AV, The Law of the Sea (3rd edn, Manchester University Press 1999)Google Scholar 214. See also Papastavridis (n 27) 160.

65 Churchill and Lowe (n 63) 214.

66 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (concluded 1 November 1974, entered into force 25 May 1980) 1184 UNTS 278, ch V, reg 10(a) (‘SOLAS Convention’).

67 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (opened for signature 27 April 1979, entered into force 22 June 1985) 1405 UNTS 119, Annex, para 2.1.1 (‘Search and Rescue Convention’).

68 The Search and Rescue Convention provides that the search and rescue zones are without prejudice to any maritime boundary delimitation. Ibid Annex, para 2.1.7.

69 Miltner, B, ‘Irregular Maritime Migration: Refugee Protection Issues in Rescue and Interception’ (2006) 30 FordhamIntLJ 75, 92Google Scholar.

70 Search and Rescue Convention (n 66) para 2.1.10. The SOLAS Convention was also amended to this effect. SOLAS Convention (n 65), ch V, reg 33-3.

71 Search and Rescue Convention (n 66) para 1.3.2.

72 Pallis, M, ‘Obligation of States towards Asylum Seekers at Sea: Interactions and Conflicts between Legal Regimes’ (2002) 14 IJRL 329, 360CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Miltner (n 68) 88. Miltner comments that disembarking at the next port of call was once so well established as a matter of practice that there had not previously been a need to articulate the requirement. Miltner (n 68) 89. However, with the increase of irregular migrants travelling in unseaworthy vessels, this practice has been challenged. Ibid 89–90.

73 Search and Rescue Convention (n 66) para 3.1.2 (emphasis added).

74 See IMO Maritime Safety Committee, ‘Adoption of Amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974, as Amended’, MSC Res 153(78), IMO Doc MSC 78/26/Add.1 (20 May 2004) Annex 3, reg. 33-1-1 (‘SOLAS Amendments’); see also IMO Maritime Safety Committee, ‘Adoption of Amendments to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979, as Amended’, MSC Res 155(78), IMO Doc MSC 78/26/Add.1 (20 May 2004) Annex 5, para 3.1.9 (‘SAR Amendments’). Both entered into force on 1 July 2006.

75 IMO, ‘Principles relating to Administrative Procedures for Disembarking Persons Rescued at Sea’, IMO Doc FAL.3/Circ.194 (22 January 2009) para 2.3 (‘IMO Principles’).

76 IMO Maritime Safety Committee, ‘Guidelines on the Treatment of Persons Rescued At Sea’, MSC Res 167(78), IMO Doc MSC 78/26/Add.2 (20 May 2004) Annex 34 (‘IMO Guidelines’).

77 ibid para 6.12.

78 ibid para 6.17.

79 The IMO Guidelines provide that every effort is to be made by governments to minimize the time that survivors remain on board the assisting ship. ibid para 6.8.

80 Spain and Italy wanted the State coordinating the rescue to be the place of disembarkation, which was perceived as a way to pressure Malta to reduce the size of its SRR. See Moreno-Lax (n 31) 197 n 156; De Blouw, N, ‘Drowning Policies: A Proposal to Modify the Dublin Agreement and Reduce Human Rights Abuses in the Mediterranean’ (2010) 40 CalWIntLJ 335, 355Google Scholar.

81 See Coppens, J, ‘The Essential Role of Malta in Drafting the New Regional Agreement on Migrants at Sea in the Mediterranean Basin’ (2013) 44 JMarL&Com 89, 101Google Scholar.

82 Moreno-Lax (n 31) 176 (citing EU report containing comments from UK and Malta representatives).

83 See discussion in Coppens (n 80) 103–5.

84 Ibid 105.

85 See (n 1). This part is primarily concerned with asylum seekers and refugees.

86 This right is implicit in the obligation of non-refoulement. Fischer-Lescano (n 30) 284–5; Papastavridis (n 27) 217.

87 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (opened for signature 28 July 1951, entered into force 22 April 1954) 189 UNTS 150, art IA(2) (‘Refugee Convention’); Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (opened for accession 31 January 1967, entered into force 4 October 1967) 606 UNTS 267, art I(2) (‘Refugee Protocol’).

88 See eg Nessel, LA, ‘Externalized Borders and the Invisible Refugee’ (2009) 40 ColumHumRtsLRev 625, 670–1Google Scholar.

89 R v Immigration Officer at Prague Airport and another, ex parte European Roma Rights Centre and others [2005] 2 AC 1 (9 December 2004) (‘Prague Airport’).

90 Fischer-Lescano (n 30) 262–3. Guilfoyle considers this position to be unconvincing. Guilfoyle (n 8) 226.

91 See above (nn 24–25).

92 For discussion see HH Koh, ‘Reflections on Refoulement’ (1994) 35 HastingsIntlLJ 1; SH Legomsky, ‘The USA and the Caribbean Interdiction Program’ (2006) 18 IJRL 677, 687–91. See also Hirsi (n 10) concurring opinion of Judge Pinto de Albuquerque.

93 Haitian Centre for Human Rights v United States Case 10.675, Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, Report No 51/96, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.95 Doc. 7 rev. at 550 (1997).

94 UNHCR Executive Committee, ‘Interception of Asylum-Seekers and Refugees: The International Framework and Recommendations for a Comprehensive Approach’ (9 June 2000) <> para 23.

95 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (opened for signature 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (‘ICCPR’).

96 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (opened for signature 10 December 1984, entered into force 26 June 1987) 1465 UNTS 85 (‘CAT’).

97 Ibid art 3. Art 7 of the ICCPR has also been interpreted to similar effect. UN Human Rights Committee, ‘General Comment 20, Article 7’, UN Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.1 at 30 (1994) para 9.

98 UN Human Rights Committee, ‘General Comment No. 31: Nature of the General Legal Obligation Imposed on States Parties to the Covenant’, UN Doc CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13 (26 May 2004) para 10. See also Fischer-Lescano (n 30) 272.

99 UN Committee against Torture, ‘Concluding Observations: United States of America’, UN Doc CAT/C/USA/C/2 (2006) para 20. See further Fischer-Lescano (n 30) 271.

100 Hirsi (n 10) para 73.

101 Ibid para 81.

102 See eg Medvedyev and Others v France (European Court of Human Rights, Appl no 3394/03, 29 March 2010); Women on Waves and Others v Portugal (European Court of Human Rights, Appl no 31276/05, 3 February 2009); Xhavara and Others v Italy and Albania (European Court of Human Rights, Appl no 39473/98, 11 January 2001).

103 JHA v Spain, (CAT/C/41/D/323/2007, 21 November 2008). See further Guiffre, M, ‘Watered-down Rights on the High Seas: Hirsi Jamaa and others v Italy (2012)’ (2012) 61 ICLQ 728, 735–6Google Scholar.

104 Medvedyev v France (n 102) para 67. See also Giuffre (n 102) 733.

105 Hirsi (n 10) para 81. See also Papanicolopulu, I, ‘Hirsi Jamaa v Italy’ (2013) 107 AJIL 417, 420Google Scholar.

106 Fischer-Lescano (n 30) 275–6. However, Coppens considers that the Hirsi judgment leaves open the question as to whether diversion of a vessel would amount to effective control. Coppens, J, ‘The Law of the Sea and Human Rights in the Hirsi Jamaa and Others v Italy Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights’ (2014) 30 Ius Gentium 179, 200 and 202Google Scholar.

107 Hirsi (n 10) para 121.

108 Ibid para 115.

109 Protocol No 4 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, securing certain rights and freedoms other than those already included in the Convention and in the first Protocol thereto (opened for signature 16 September 1963, entered into force 2 May 1968) ETS 46, art 4.

110 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (opened for signature 4 November 1950, entered into force 3 September 1953) ETS 005, art 13.

111 Hirsi (n 10) para 180.

112 ibid para 202.

113 ibid paras 204–205.

114 As noted in the ILC Study Group Report, a conflict in the substance of law may arise where there is a choice between what interests are relevant and what are not. Koskenniemi (n 12) para 22.

115 Barnes (n 56) 61.

116 In examining the practice of Frontex, Moreno-Lax has commented: ‘Search and rescue obligations are understood as operating independent from other international obligations arising from refugee law and human rights, the observance of which is rendered uncertain’. Moreno-Lax (n 31) 177.

117 eg Migrant Smuggling Protocol (n 16) art 9.

118 See JHA v Spain (n 102).

119 Koskenniemi (n 12) para 25.

120 See the proposals put forward by Barnes, for example. Barnes (n 56) 74–6.

121 See eg Legomsky (n 91) 677–8; Miltner (n 68) 78–83; Klein, N, ‘International Migration by Sea and Air’ in Opeskin, B et al. (eds), Foundations of International Migration Law (Cambridge University Press 2012)Google Scholar 260, 261.

122 Klein (n 120) 262–7.

123 See Buzan, B et al. , Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Lynne Reinner 1998) 32–3Google Scholar. See also Watson, SD, ‘Manufacturing Threats: Asylum Seekers as Threats or Refugees?’ (2007) 3 JILIR 95, 97–8Google Scholar.

124 Watson (n 122) 101.

125 Pugh, M, ‘Drowning not Waving: Boat People and Humanitarianism at Sea’ (2004) 17 JRS 50, 53Google Scholar. See also Nessel (n 87) 668; Miltner (n 68) 82–3.

126 See Papastavridis (n 27) 148.

127 See United Nations Development Program, ‘1994 Human Development Report’ < >.

128 ‘The principle that special law derogates from general law is a widely accepted maxim of legal interpretation and technique for the resolution of normative conflicts.’ Koskenniemi (n 12) para 56.

129 See below (nn 130–131).

130 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (opened for signature 23 May 1969, entered into force 27 January 1980) 1155 UNTS 331, art 31(3)(c). See further McLachlan, C, ‘The Principle of Systemic Integration and Article 31(3)(c) of the Vienna Convention’ (2005) 54 ICLQ 279CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

131 UNCLOS (n 15) art 2(3).

132 ibid art 87(1).

133 Because of the reference to ‘where applicable’.

134 See eg IMO Guidelines (n 75) and the Frontex Guidelines (n 37).

135 See agreement appended to Kramek (n 8) 152–60.

136 ibid 158.

137 As per art 31(3)(c) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (n 129).

138 See discussion in Papanicolopulu, I, ‘A Missing Part of the Law of the Sea Convention: Addressing Issues of State Jurisdiction over Persons at Sea’ in Schofield, C et al. (eds), The Limits of Maritime Jurisdiction (Martinus Nijhoff 2014) 387Google Scholar.

139 See above nn 97–105 and accompanying text.

140 Hirsi (n 10) para 178. See also Medvedyev v France (n 101) 81.

141 Barnes (n 56) 70.

142 Corfu Channel (Albania v United Kingdom) 1994 ICJ Reports 4 (9 April).

143 M/V Saiga (No 2) (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines v Guinea) (Admissibility and Merits) (1999) 38 ILM 1323, para 155.

144 Moreno-Lax (n 31) 195.

145 See Council Decision (n 38).

146 Miltner (n 68) 109.

147 Fischer-Lescano (n 30) 290. This view was also set out by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Resolution 1821 (2011) (‘Yet it is clear that the notion of “place of safety” should not be restricted solely to the physical protection of people, but necessarily also entails respect for their fundamental rights.’). See Council of Europe, ‘The interception and rescue at sea of asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants’, Resolution 1821 (21 June 2011) para 9.5.

148 IMO Guidelines (n 75) para 6.17.

149 Fischer-Lescano (n 30) 291.

150 Churchill and Lowe (n 63) 63.

151 Miltner (n 68) 111.

152 Koskenniemi (n 12) para 42.

153 This argument would be seen as another situation of ‘creeping jurisdiction’.

154 De Blouw (n 79) 352.

155 ibid.

156 ibid 352–3 (citations omitted). See also Coppens (n 80) 98.

157 Search and Rescue Convention (n 66) para 2.1.1.

158 Barnes (n 56) 64.

159 Koskenniemi (n 12) para 34.

160 ibid para 36.

161 Surveillance of the external sea borders in the context of operational cooperation coordinated by the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Members States, 2013/0106 (COD) (21 May 2014) <>. This article was in production at the time the Regulation was adopted.

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