A new Council of Europe report highlights Europe’s failure to respect human rights and to save lives in the Mediterranean. This year’s death toll in the Mediterranean increases to almost 300 people, including 39 deaths following two shipwrecks off Tunisia earlier this month. Interceptions and returns to Libya, as well as Tunisia, have increased in 2021. A call condemns the continued crack-down on SAR NGOs.

The Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, has published a follow up report to her recommendations from 2019 on the situation in the Mediterranean. The new report, entitled “A distress call for human rights: The widening gap in migrant protection in the Mediterranean” highlights that the human rights situation in the Mediterranean region has “further deteriorated”. Further, noting that only little progress was made since her 2019 recommendations to Council of Europe member states. The report outlines how human suffering has been exacerbated by attempts to reduce arrivals to Europe by engaging “in a race to the bottom to keep people in need of our protection outside our borders”. According to the report, this includes the lack of state-led rescue capacity, the criminalisation of NGOs carrying out SAR activities, delays of disembarkation, co-operation with third countries such as Libya, and the insufficient engagement in establishing safe and legal routes. Once again, the human rights Commissioner calls on states to show “renewed commitment” to human rights for all, including in migration policies, and underlines that European countries have the means to prevent the avoidable deaths at sea. However, she remains concerned that European states are unwilling “to set up an adequate system of protection capable of securing at least the right to life of refugees and migrants attempting sea crossings, and ensuring that they are not exposed to serious human rights violations such as torture”.

The report covers the period from July 2019 to December 2020. However, the negative trend continues in 2021. The Missing Migrant Project run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) already recorded 291 deaths in the Mediterranean region this year, most of them in the Central Mediterranean. At least 39 people have drowned when two boats capsized off Tunisia on 9 March. 165 people survived the tragedy and where returned to Tunisia by the coast guard. According to Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, 94 boats departing from Tunisian shores have been intercepted since the beginning of the year, compared to 47 in the same period in 2020. The number of people who were arrested in Tunisia for attempting the crossing approximately doubled compared to the same period last year, amounting to a total of 1,736 people. On 18 March, the NGO hotline for people in distress Alarm Phone received a distress call from a boat that caught fire off the Libyan coast with between 70 and 100 people on board. According to relatives, the boat could be located and all survivors were returned to Libya. It remains unclear, if and how many people died or went missing. The same day, ten people were rescued by the civil rescue ship Ocean Viking, operated by SOS Mediterranee off Libya. Since the beginning of the year, more than 4,100 people were intercepted by the EU-backed so-called Libyan coast guard and returned to unsafe ports in Libya, where migrants face arbitrary detention and abuse.

A call for solidarity condemns the recent attack by Italian authorities against the NGO Mediterranea Saving Humans for its involvement in the rescue of 27 survivors last summer, stating “Once again, we are confronted with attempts to give priority to border security over the duty to rescue people at risk” and that “The criminalization of Mediterranea is emblematic of the current conjuncture.” The call, which is signed by activists, academics, and others, includes a fundraising campaign to alleviate the financial burdens stemming from the legal actions taken.

The situation of people in distress at sea was discussed during a meeting of the EP Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on 15 March. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović took part in the exchange of views, as well as representatives from the European Commission and Alarm Phone.

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 Photo: ECRE

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