17 April 2015

Some 400 people are feared dead after their boat capsized on Monday in waters about 120 kilometres south of Italy’s Lampedusa Island, according to survivors of the latest shipwreck in the Mediterranean. If the reports are confirmed, this would bring this year’s death toll to nearly one thousand. So far, 142 people have been rescued and eight bodies recovered. According to the Italian Coastguard more than 8,500 people have been rescued in the Mediterranean since 10 April.

UNHCR, as well as ECRE and other NGOs have repeatedly called for the EU to step up its efforts to save lives in the Mediterranean. “Our calls for EU search-and-rescue efforts in the Mediterranean have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from the outstanding efforts of the Italian navy, the EU continues to fail to act. A similar tragedy can be happening right now”, said ECRE’s Secretary General Michael Diedring.

The Italian navy’s search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which saved more than 100,000 people since it was established following the shipwrecks off Lampedusa in October 2013, was suspended at the end of 2014 and has not been replaced by a mission with a similar capacity to save people. In its place, Frontex operation Triton is working on a monthly budget of €2.9 million, a third of Mare Nostrum’s budget.

“Europe has scaled back search-and-rescue capacity based on the flawed argument that such operations were acting as a ‘pull factor’, attracting more migrants. But the reality in the Mediterranean is exposing that fallacy, since the numbers of desperate people seeking to make it to Europe are only going up,” said Gauri Van Gulik, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.

People fleeing war and persecution undertake these life-threatening journeys because they do not have another way to reach a safe place. “We could put smugglers out of business immediately if the EU would create legal channels for refugees to reach Europe”, Diedring said.

Answering to questions from the press and having refused to comment on the alleged death of 400 people, European Commission’s Spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said “today the European Commission has neither the funding nor the political support needed to create a European border guard system, which would carry out search-and-rescue missions”

The European Commission is due to present a “migration agenda” in May. According to Human Rights Watch “Some of the proposals, while cloaked in humanitarian rhetoric about preventing deaths at sea, raise serious human rights concerns (…) These include setting up offshore processing centers in North African countries, outsourcing border control and rescue operations in order to prevent departures, and increasing financial assistance to deeply repressive countries like Eritrea, one of the key countries of origin for asylum seekers attempting the sea crossing, without evidence of human rights reforms.

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, stated: “The response to the repetitiveness and magnitude of these tragedies cannot be apathy, but it must be an urgent and comprehensive solution to this calamity”

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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 17 April 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.