22 April 2016

A new report released by Forensic Oceanography – a team that specialises in the use of forensic techniques and cartography to reconstruct cases of deaths at sea – accuses EU policy makers and agencies of knowingly reducing Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts in the Mediterranean and of thus being responsible for the deaths in the first months of 2015. The report is part of the “Precarious Trajectories” research project funded by the European and Social Research Council and in collaboration with WatchTheMed.

The report – Death by Rescue – released in the week marking the one year anniversary since the tragic shipwrecks of April 2015, focuses on how those shipwrecks occurred during and partly because of the rescue operations. In the reconstruction of the events, the researchers discovered how the merchant vessels involved in SAR fully complied with their legal obligations and acted to the best of their abilities for the rescue operation. However, the fact that it was private vessels and not State-led SAR operations meant that those carrying out SAR were not properly equipped to deal with them.

By shifting the responsibility for SAR to merchant vessels, EU agencies and policy makers knowingly created the conditions that led to the death of 1,200 people in April 2015, the report argues. After the end of the Italian-led Mare Nostrum SAR operation, the EU border agency Frontex had foreseen the risks involved with Triton, a smaller operation with less assets and less capacity to reach into international waters, where most boats fall in distress. However, despite all the criticism raised by human rights activists and NGOs and its own internal assessment, the agency decided to go ahead.

Limited SAR was used as a deterrence factor by EU policy-makers, though the deadly consequences had been predicted by many stakeholders. By knowingly cutting back SAR in the Mediterranean, the EU and Frontex have a strong responsibility for the deaths – the report argues – and are guilty of killing by omission.

“The European Union’s actions will one day be judged as a crime against humanity” stated GUE/NGL MEP Barbara Spinelli in her foreword to the report. “At the same time the European Union’s policies generate illegality while remaining completely ineffective: it is not the traffickers who will have to pay the price, but the refugees and the whole of Europe.”

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 22 April 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.