A new report by Amnesty International denounces the “shameful inaction of European Union (EU) countries” in addressing the increasing deaths at sea of migrants and refugees. Amnesty calls for an EU response to strengthen search and rescue in the Mediterranean, the resolution of controversies between Malta and Italy on their search and rescue and disembarkation duties, more safe and legal access to Europe for people fleeing conflict and persecution, and fairer distribution of responsibility for refugees in Europe.

With European land borders at Greece and Bulgaria with Turkey sealed off and no safe and legal routes for refugees to the EU, an increasing number of people seeking international protection have no other option than put their lives at risk by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, says Amnesty.

Furthermore, Amnesty International identified structural problems in the search and rescue regime in the Central Mediterranean, which have historically undermined the delivery of effective search and rescue operations. Firstly, Italy and Malta have not reached an agreement over the extension of their respective Search and Rescue (SAR) zones. Secondly, the two countries have different interpretations of the concept of ‘distress at sea’, which triggers a search and rescue operation. According to Malta’s interpretation, a vessel must be on the point of sinking and there must be a request of assistance. While for Italy, unseaworthiness per se entails distress. Thirdly, Italy and Malta also have different interpretations of the concept of ‘safe port of disembarkation’. For Italy, the safe port of disembarkation would be the port of the state responsible for the SAR zone where the operation is carried out, which would be Malta in the majority of the cases, considering the large size of Malta’s SAR zone. On the other hand, Malta claims that the safe port for disembarkation would be the closest port, which could often be Lampedusa or Sicily.

Amnesty International stated that these controversies might have caused the death of 200 people on the 11 October 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck. Amnesty calls for an independent enquiry in both countries to investigate the possible failures of Italy and Malta to act promptly to save the lives of migrants at distress. According to Amnesty, these disagreements have been papered over by Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum but need urgently to be resolved.

Amnesty International underlines that such disputes are further exacerbated by the Dublin regime. By establishing that the first EU country of arrival is responsible for processing the asylum application of the person claiming international protection, coastal states are under the obligation to process the claims of all those rescued at sea. This element has also played a role in deterring EU coastal states from fulfilling their obligations to search and rescue those in distress, says Amnesty.

Amnesty International recommends that Italy maintains Mare Nostrum until another similar operation is in place. Amnesty considers that if the EU Border Agency Frontex has to play a role in rescuing people in the Mediterranean, then the search and rescue functions should be clearly added to the agency’s mandate and it should receive adequate resources to do so. In addition, the organisation calls for a revision of the Dublin Regulation to revise the processing of asylum claims in EU and for the freedom of movement of refugees in the European Union.


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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 3 October 2014. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.