The Tunisian coast guard has recovered 16 bodies of people attempting to reach Europe. Civilian rescuers have saved at least 899 lives in the Mediterranean but survivors are forced to be stranded at sea due to delayed permissions for disembarkation. NGOs have denounced Maltese deterrence tactics and the “extremely hostile environment for refugees” on the island. Cyprus welcomes potential EU relocation and seeks further support.

On 20 June (World Refugee Day), the Tunisian coast guard recovered the bodies of four people following a shipwreck off the coast of Sfax City. On the same day, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported it had been “alerted to a boat which left Sfax during the previous night to reach Lampedusa. But since then they are missing”. The organisation further stated, “All authorities are informed. We hope they are still alive”. A further 12 already decomposing bodies – believed to be deceased from an attempt by sub-Saharan Africans to reach Italy from Libya – had been found over the weekend in the same area bringing the total to 16 confirmed deaths. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 715 people have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean in 2022 as of 18 June.

Civilian search and rescue operators have saved close to 900 lives in the Mediterranean over the latest period but again faced prolonged waiting for permission to disembark survivors. After a series of rescues, Sea-Watch 4 had 313 survivors on board. According to Sea-Watch international, survivors were “rescued jointly by the civil fleet, supported from the air by our aircraft Seabird – while European states remained inactive”. One survivor had to be evacuated with “life-threatening health problems” on 21 June and on June 23 “A pregnant woman, 2 babies, 2 people with health problems, and 3 relatives” were evacuated.

The Aita Mari rescue vessel operated by Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario (Humanitarian Maritime Rescue) (SMH), that was carrying a total of 112 survivors after numerous rescue operations on the same day, reported increasing tensions on board due to being stranded at sea. Also on 21 June, Sea-Eye 4, operated by Sea-Eye e. V. – with a total of 476 survivors on board including 66 children – reported sickness and lack of beds and protection against the heat for people on board. On 22 June, the Civil Fleet published a statement after Italian authorities had finally granted survivors from Aita Mari permission to disembark and survivors from Sea-Eye 4 had landed in Italy, stating: “The unnecessary wait for safety is over for 588 refugees, but the authorities keep 312 others at sea as their health deteriorates”, the latter in reference to the people remaining on Sea-Watch 4. Reportedly, the Aurora vessel operated by Sea-Watch supported by the British organisation Search And Rescue Relief (SAR-Relief / SARR) and sailing under the British flag has been blocked from returning to sea by UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The denial of permission to depart was given on the grounds that it operates: “beyond the geographical limitations” of the UK’s Rescue Boat Code under which it is certified”.

Malta has continued to apply deterrence tactics of being non-responsive to distress calls and refusing disembarkation. “The government refuses to explain why they are abandoned out at sea, either not rescued or not allowed to safely disembark,” the Malta Refugee Council stated on 20 June, urging authorities to reopen the dialogue on migration laws and practices. The council further pointed to an “extremely hostile environment for refugees” on the island, stating: “Hundreds are detained in squalid conditions and on dubious legal grounds in what international human rights bodies described as ‘institutional mass neglect’. New detention rules dramatically limit their possibility of (such people) receiving needed information and support”. Malta saw a 63% drop in irregular arrivals by sea in 2021 and a 38.9 per cent decrease in applications for asylum lodged with the International Protection Agency (IPA).

The government of the Republic of Cyprus, which has called for European solidarity on irregular migration alongside the other Med5 countries, has welcomed the support of a declaration on temporary solidarity at a recent European Union Home Affairs Council. Reportedly, a handful of member states have agreed to relocate thousands of asylum seekers from Mediterranean countries. According to an EU diplomat: “within the realm of 7,000 to 8,000,” people. Further, Cyprus is negotiating increased support from the European Commission. During a recent visit by a commission official, infrastructure at the notorious Pournara camp and surveillance along the buffer zone separating the island, were among the topics discussed. European Commission Vice President, Margaritis Schinas has called on Turkiye and the Turkish Cypriot government to stem arrivals from the northern part of the divided island. The government of the Republic of Cyprus claims that 10,000 people have applied for asylum in the first five months of 2022, doubling from the same period in 2021.

In a new report, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urges safe pathways for vulnerable migrants stuck in Libya, reiterating the dire situation in the country, stating: “The lack of both protection and stability partly explains the industrial-scale trafficking. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers entering Libya via irregular land routes are commonly held by traffickers and tortured for ransom, for periods lasting months and often exceeding a year. To be a migrant in Libya is to risk being arrested, with no recourse to a legal system, and then detained in an ‘official’ detention centre or sold on to a trafficking network, and subjected to potentially extreme violence. Providing meaningful protection in such a context, for all intents and purposes, becomes impossible”. IOM statistics reveal that 8,860 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya so far this year.

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