Over 100 people have died and some 150 are missing after a boat which departed from Libya caught fire and sank just off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. The survivors said they set fire to a blanket to attract the attention of coast guards after the overcrowded boat started sinking. The boat was believed to have been carrying around 500 passengers, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia.

“These deaths did not need to happen,”François Crépeau, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants said. Crépeau said that the “criminalization of irregular immigration” had played a role in the tragedy and that by closing their borders, European countries are only giving more power to human traffickers. He told reporters that “treating irregular migrants only by repressive measures would create these tragedies,” adding that politicians must take some responsibility for tragedies such as the one at Lampedusa.

On the other hand, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström acknowledged that “we have to become better at identifying and rescuing vessels at risk” and said that a new border surveillance system which will become operational at the end of this year, ‘Eurosur’, “will help Member States to better track, identify and rescue small vessels at sea thanks to better coordination between national authorities, appropriate channels of communication and improved surveillance technology”. However, critics say that “Eurosur has been driven forward by the Commission, certain EU member states and Frontex, with the sole purpose of shutting off EU borders”.

Some commentators have stressed that more could be done to ensure that commercial vessels have incentives to be proactive when it comes to saving the lives of migrants at sea.  Earlier this year, when the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) published a report on fundamental rights at the EU’s Southern sea borders, the Head of Asylum, Migration and Borders Sector at the Agency, Adriano Silvestri, told the ECRE Weekly Bulletin, that there are disincentives for fishermen to render assistance to people in distress at sea, including the financial cost as the fishermen usually are requested by the authorities to wait near the people they have rescued until the rescuers arrive, and that causes them to lose time when they would otherwise be working, as well as the fact that fishermen are afraid that they could be subject to prosecution for facilitating irregular entry if they bring migrants to shore without first obtaining permission from the authorities. “This is an issue I think that should be followed up more closely and, at EU level, a revision of the 2002 Facilitation Directive should be considered”, Silvestri said.

With legal channels of entering the EU for protection reasons almost non-existent, most refugees have no choice but to risk their lives in order to try to reach safety. ECRE has underlined that this tragedy once again highlights the need for Europe to equip itself with tools to avoid the loss of lives and provide refugees with an alternative to resorting to illegal means of entry through dangerous routes. The EU and its Member States have a responsibility to facilitate access to protection in Europe for people fleeing war and persecution through resettlement, humanitarian visas and other means to facilitate entry to the EU in a legal and safe manner.  ECRE reiterated that these tools should not undermine in any way the situation of those with protection needs who manage to reach Europe outside those procedures.

Commissioner Malmström also called upon Member States to engage more in the resettlement of people in need of international protection to help to reduce the number of people putting their lives at risk in the hopes of reaching European shores and underlined the need to open new channels for legal migration.

This is not an isolated tragedy in the Mediterranean. In 2011 alone, according to estimates by UNHCR, more than 1,500 asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants have died trying to reach the southern shores of the EU.

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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 4 October 2013
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