• New data has shown that the Mediterranean crossing route remains the deadliest for migrants.
  • Search and rescue organisations have faced yet more dangerous obstruction and delays by Italian authorities and the so-called Libyan Coastguard.
  • Cyprus has voted to appoint a Deputy Ministry of Migration and Asylum to “handle” migration while Austria has joined it in urging the EU to consider Syria a ‘safe’ country.
  • Five years after their arrest, the trial of the three migrants known as the El Hiblu 3 is continuing in Malta

According to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 8565 people died on migration routes across the world in 2023, making it the deadliest year on record for migrants. “These horrifying figures collected by the Missing Migrants Project are also a reminder that we must recommit to greater action that can ensure safe migration for all, so that ten years from now, people aren’t having to risk their lives in search of a better one,” said IOM Deputy Director General Ugochi Daniels. The Mediterranean crossing continues to be the deadliest route for migrants, with at least 3129 deaths and disappearances recorded last year.

On 2 March, after Sea-Watch’s Seabird 2 monitoring aircraft had spotted three migrant boats in distress carrying around 90 people, SOS Humanity’s Humanity 1 rescue ship conducted a rescue mission. During the operation, SOS Humanity reported that a “Libyan patrol boat arrived on the scene and performed dangerous maneuvers that caused chaos and many people jumped into the water”, adding that the patrol also “fired gunshot into the water”. While the crew of the Humanity 1 managed to rescue 77 people, at least one person drowned following the Libyan patrol’s intervention and many others were forcibly returned to Libya. Following this incident, SOS Humanity wrote on X “How long will Europe finance human rights violations at its external border? We are outraged by the senseless loss of life, and call on Italy & the EU to cease support for the so-called Libyan Coast Guard immediately!”. On 5 March, after the disembarkation of the 77 survivors in Crotone, Italy, Humanity 1 was detained by the Italian authorities allegedly on the basis of “false accusations”. In a press release, SOS Humanity stated that it would “not accept this distortion of the facts by the Italian authorities”, adding that the events that took place on 2 March had been filmed and documented by Seabird 2. “The Italian authorities attempted to justify the arrest of the Humanity 1 on the grounds that the Humanity 1 would have caused a dangerous situation for the people in distress at sea. In fact, it was the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, financed by the EU, who endangered the lives of the people in the water and our rescue crew”, SOS Humanity said. On 3 March, Sea-Watch 5 rescued 70 people in two different operations. It was initially assigned Reggio Calabria as a port of safety even though it would require an additional four days sailing in 4-metre-high waves. On 5 March, the organisation reported that: “After [approximately] 36 hours of the coastguard refusing to assign us a closer port or a transfer, they’ve now taken all 70 guests on board. We are happy, that our guests no longer had to endure at sea but could safely disembark in Lampedusa”. On 6 March, Sea-Watch 5 rescued around 50 people, including four who were suffering from dehydration and fuel burns, from an overcrowded boat. Two hours after the organisation’s call to the Italian authorities to organise an immediate medical evacuation, a 17-year-old boy reportedly died on the boat. Additionally, nine hours after their evacuation request, the Italian coastguard took four survivors from their vessel but refused to take the body of the dead boy. NGO Sea-Watch International wrote on X on 7 March: “after urging and waiting, the #SeaWatch5 was finally able to arrive in Pozzallo, where 51 survivors and the body of the 17-year-old boy were disembarked. Our thoughts are with him and his loved ones, and we embrace those who are starting a new life today”. On 7 March, 261 people were rescued by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) from two very overcrowded wooden boats that had departed from Libya. In an X post, MSF also condemned the Italian authorities’ practice of assigning distant ports for the disembarkation of survivors. “This practice, as well as the assignation of distant ports, represents another obstacle to obstruct the assistance of people in distress at sea”, they wrote.

An investigation into the suicide of a 22-year-old Guinean man on 4 February, at the repatriation centre (CPR) in Ponte Galeria on the outskirts of Rome, is ongoing. “If I die, I would like my body to be taken to Africa, my mother would be happy. The Italian military doesn’t understand anything except money. I miss Africa a lot and my mother too, she doesn’t have to cry for me. Peace to my soul, may I rest in peace,” he wrote in French on the wall of the detention centre where he had been held since 27 January. After his visit to the Ponte Galeria CPR, Riccardo Magi MEP told Le Monde, “As in all the CPRs I was able to visit, the situation inside is inhumane.” Elsewhere, following the recent preliminary hearings on the Iuventa crew case, a decision is expected on 19 April. The rescue organisation issued a press statement saying, “Following the prosecution’s unexpected request to drop the charges, the defense delivered a powerful closing argument, demanding not only the dismissal of the case but also the full recognition of the legality of all actions. Moreover, they called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the case to establish accountability for the erroneous investigation and its serious implications.”  Save the Children and MSF both commented on the latest developments in the case. “The request for the charges to be dropped is yet another confirmation of the weakness of the accusations. We have always reiterated the full legitimacy of our actions. Saving lives is not a crime and the criminalization of sea rescues must end,” they wrote. Regarding the continued detentions of sea rescue vessels, the search and rescue NGO SOS MEDITERRANEE has launched a petition to “change the direction of policies on sea rescues” of migrants and refugees ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections. “In a few months there will be European Parliament elections and we believe that they could be a turning point. Over the past year, there have been 16 administrative detentions for NGO ships for having violated the Piantedosi decree, a regulation that undermines the international law of the sea,” said the organisation’s director, Valeria Taurino.

In Cyprus, the House of Representatives has taken a “significant step” in reforming the island’s approach to asylum and migration by voting in favour of the appointment of a Deputy Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The move comes amid proposals by the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) to improve the integration of third-country nationals and manage return procedures “more efficiently”. On 4 March, Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou reiterated calls for his EU counterparts to reassess the status of parts of Syria and to consider parts of the country ‘safe’. “After such a long time, the EU should examine its decisions on the matter, based on the realities which exist today and on the basis of the negative consequences created by the perpetuation of the existing policy,” he said. This notion of reassessing the safety of Syria was welcomed by other EU member states, includingGreece and Austria. Speaking to the Cyprus Mail, a spokesperson for the Austrian Interior Ministry said that Minister Gerhard Karner had told the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Council that “deportations to safe areas in Syria should be possible again in the medium term”. The spokesperson added that the subject “needs to be discussed and should be on the EU agenda”.

After five years of detention, the “ElHiblu3”, the three people who had been accused of carrying out “acts of terrorism” over their resistance to their forced return to Libya in 2019, had their first preliminary hearing in the Maltese Criminal Court. Another series of hearings is expected before the trial begins after the summer. “We believe it is not too late for the State to do the right thing even at this late stage of proceedings. This is a trial that should have never started in the first place,” campaigners for the three wrote in an op-ed. Meanwhile, the tragedy that led to the deaths of five people off the coast of Malta on 23 February has raised concerns and questions over the adequacy of rescue efforts and the treatment of survivors while the Maltese authorities have remained secretive around the details and circumstances that led to the tragedy. Consequently, civil society organisations and other activists have called for a public inquiry as key questions remain unanswered, including when the boat was initially sighted, the length of time it took for rescuers to arrive at the scene, and whether or not the Armed Forces of Malta bear any responsibility for the incident.

For further information: