The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recorded 600 people dead or missing on the central Mediterranean route in 2022 as of 28 May. Civilian search and rescue operators continue to save lives. Malta continues strategy of ignoring distress calls as the country’s detention of unaccompanied minors is under renewed scrutiny.

The 600 people dead or missing in 2022 so far and more than 1,500 in 2021 recorded by IOM on the central Mediterranean might not be the full extent of the unfolding tragedy on the world’s deadliest migration route. As pointed out by InfoMigrants: “The real number for both years is likely to be higher, as not all deaths are reported or recorded”. On 25 May, 76 people were reported presumed dead after their boat, which departed from Libya, sank off the coast of Tunisia. “What is worrying the most in the EU’s dealing with the drownings of migrants and asylum seekers is that the concerned parties seem to be indifferent when dealing with these incidents, as if the lives of the victims are not so important to take any special action to put an end to this ongoing tragedy,” Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor, stated. The organisation points to the need for the EU to reactivate its official rescue missions.

Meanwhile, civilian search and rescue operators continue an uphill battle to save lives at sea. On 29 May SOS Méditerranée could finally announce the granted permission to disembark 294 survivors – rescued by the Ocean Viking vessel between 19 and 23 May – in Pozzallo, Sicily. Reportedly a survivor jumped of the vessel in desperation during the wait at sea but was recovered alive. “The wait of over a week for a port to disembark these people was senseless,” said Candida Lobes, communications officer on the Ocean Viking. On 29 May the new Sea-Watch vessel Aurora rescued 85 people on its first mission assisted by the NGO hotline Alarm Phone and the German NGO, RESQSHIP. The Civil Fleet stated: “authorities failed once again to respond to a refugee boat in distress in the central Mediterranean today, leaving activists rescuers to save the lives of over 80 people within Malta‘s search-and-rescue (SAR) zone”. Reportedly, the survivors were allowed to disembark on Lampedusa. On 2 June Sea-Watch announced a second rescue of 25 people by its vessel Sea-Watch 3 after saving 49 people earlier on the same day. According to the organisation: “A total of 74 rescued people are now on board with us, safe for the moment after their escape over the Mediterranean”. After additional rescues on 3 June the organisation reported: “Our crew takes care of 222 survivors at the moment, rescued in four operations within less than 24hours”.

The strategy of Maltese authorities to ignore distress calls was again at display on 27 May when Alarm Phone reported of eight people in distress in Malta’s SAR zone. The organisation stated on 28 May: “We are relieved that the 8 people were rescued – thanks to captain & crew of the vessel Antigone. While authorities refuse responsibility, merchant vessels have to step in”. Meanwhile, the continued detention of unaccompanied children in Malta has again come under scrutiny. Researcher and human rights activist, Dr Maria Pisani stated in a recent interview  that despite the government committing to end the practice eight years ago: “To date we still detained all unaccompanied minors that come to Malta by boat and detain them under the most horrific conditions”. ECRE members Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Malta and Aditus are set to release a report entitled ‘Children in Limbo: Youth Transitions Among Asylum Seekers in Malta’ based on the voices of youth detainees in the “hope that the voices of these young people be heard and understood as a clear indictment of Malta’s present reception system and the State’s failure to meet its international human rights obligations, including, but not limited to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”. The report includes the experience of a 16-year old boy detained for months without access to any information after arriving to Malta: “Maybe I wouldn’t want to go through that time, and I die. I could – I would take a rope, I would die and that’s it… as I would prefer to die than to go through that time,” he stated.

After 52 months of investigation Prosecutors in Trapani, Italy have cleared the Eritrean priest, Mussie Zerai of all charges related to aiding illegal immigration. Zerai, who is a rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2015 and founded and led the news agency Habeshia (migrants lifesaver) stated on the accusations: “Before informing NGOs … after receiving a call from refugees departing from Libya, I always called the operations center of Italian coast guards and Malta’s command”. Zerai had never been in contact with Iuventa – the civilian rescue vessel seized by prosecutors in Trapani with crew members among the more than 21 NGO staff accused of colluding with human smugglers. However, he confirmed sending rescue signals to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) as well as aid organizations active in the Mediterranean at that time. Zerai was against the conclusion in 2014 of the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean and warned against potential risks for civilian search and rescuers: “I said they were useful to the political power because they saved human lives while at the same time becoming easy scapegoats. And it ended in that way, but I couldn’t imagine that I would be involved too”.

IOM mission chief in Libya, Federico Soda recently warned of the silence of EU member states on the vicious cycle of abuse in Libya urging “more condemnation” and “more calls for law and order for investigations” in the country. According to the UN agency more than 7,000 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2022 as of 28 May.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.