The Interior ministers from Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Spain (Med5) fear potential increase of arrivals due to hunger sparked by food crisis and urges the European Union for “adequate mechanism of distributing migrants” rejecting solidarity can be voluntary. Meanwhile, civilian rescuers remain more or less alone in showing solidarity on the central Mediterranean where they continue to save lives and fight authorities to ensure safe disembarkation.

Following two days of talks in Venice the so-called Med5 group consisting of five southern EU member states expressed the fear of increased arrivals driven by threatening food crisis sparked by the Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain exports. The talks however did not focus on assisting the people directly affected by a potential crisis but rather on demands for mandatory EU redistribution of them should they arrive in Med5 countries. “If wheat remains blocked in the Black Sea ports, we must expect a greater (migrant) flow,” Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese stated, continuing: “We are concerned, as are all frontline countries”. The minister further noted that the situation constitutes another reason for the EU to develop an “adequate mechanism of distributing migrants” among member states. “This year the frontline member states are expected, as we have discussed between us, to receive more than 150,000 migrants,” Cyprus Interior Minister, Nicos Nouris stated, also stressing: “Solidarity in our mind cannot be voluntary”. According to statistics from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) 38,855 have arrived irregularly in Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Malta in 2022 so far, compared to a total of 123,318 arrivals in 2021. However, the number of arrivals remain significantly below those of 2015, when more than 1 million people reached the five countries. Reportedly, the Republic of Cyprus has also seen around 6000 irregular arrivals from the Turkish-administered northern part of the island and had a total of 11,000 asylum seekers in the first five months of 2022. The body of a man – believed to have fallen overboard from a boat carrying 44 Syrians including four children from Turkiye to Cyprus – was recently recovered by Cypriot authorities. “It is heartbreaking that, out of despair and in the absence of safe pathways, refugees have to resort to smugglers and traffickers and entrust their lives to them,” Katja Saha, UNHCR Representative in Cyprus stated after the tragedy.

Meanwhile, civilian rescuers continue a lonely uphill battle to save lives and ensure disembarkation of survivors. SOS Mediterranee warns of more deaths at sea as the likely result of “long blockages in the Mediterranean ahead of the summer” and urges “a European commitment to a sustainable disembarkation mechanism for survivors rescued in the central Mediterranean”. Recent civilian rescues Mare Jonio, operated by Mediterranea Saving Humans and Sea Watch 3, operated by Sea-Watch illustrate the situation. 92 survivors including 30 unaccompanied children rescued by Mare Junio in two operations on June 5 and 6 off Libya and Malta were able to disembark in Sicily on 9 June only after Mediterranea Saving Humans issued an ultimatum to authorities. The organisation stated it would “enter the first accessible port” without permission if its requests for a safe port were not answered within 10 hours. According to the organisation the rescue of the people and prevention of their interception and return happened despite the presence and “dangerous intervention of the so-called Libyan coast guard”. Also on 9 June Sea-Watch 3 were able to disembark the remaining 344 survivors rescued by the vessel in a series of operations on the central Mediterranean route between 2 and 6 June. The disembarkation only happened after stressful and exhausting days stranded at sea and several rounds of acute medical emergency evacuations from the vessel. Whereas Italian authorities are slow in allowing disembarkations Maltese authorities remain entirely unresponsive to distress calls. On 6 June Alarm Phone reported of 25 people including four children in distress adrift in the Maltese SAR zone but according to Mediterranea Saving Humans only: “Eight hours after Alarm Phone SOS and a long search at sea by our Mare Jonio, the 25 people in distress were finally rescued” by Italian authorities. Refugee Rescue announced on 8 June: “The Sea-Eye 4 left port on June 4 with our rescue vessel Mo Chara on board beginning our third rescue mission of 2022”.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) 690 people have died or gone missing on the central route in 2022 as of 4 June. The Un Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has released a new data visualization on the Mediterranean Situation. According to the agency: “Despite the lower numbers of crossings, the death toll has seen a steep rise. Last year, some 3,231 were recorded as dead or missing at sea in the Mediterranean and the northwest Atlantic, with 1,881 in 2020, 1,510 in 2019, and more than 2,277 for 2018”.

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