Discussions on the responsibility to ensure search and rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean intensified this week as the UK announced that they will not support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, claiming that such operations encourage more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and lead to more deaths.

Proposals to shirk the search and rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean has come under severe criticism from all corners, including NGOs, UN human rights experts as well as the commercial shipping industry. The British Refugee Council chief executive, Maurice Wren, said: “The British government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you’re running for your life and your country is in flames. The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep”.

ECRE’s Michael Diedring labelled the UK stance as shocking and lacking basic humanity, “It is as if you walk by a river and see a child being pulled away by the current and think: ‘I’ll let the child drown because then the other kids will know that they shouldn’t fall into the river. Hopefully, most of us would jump in or pick up a branch to save the child. It’s basic humanity.” Diedring underlined that the only way for people fleeing for their lives to attempt to come to Europe is through the use of organised criminals.

IOM Director General William Lacy Swing, said: “Boat arrivals to Europe are a result of the complex humanitarian crisis near Europe’s external borders – not of the humanitarian life-saving policies that try to assist those in need. At a time when countries in North Africa, the Middle East and East Africa are hosting millions of displaced persons, compared to a few hundred thousand in all of Europe, the European reaction should be balanced and compassionate.”

“To bank on the rise in the number of dead migrants to act as deterrence for future migrants and asylum seekers is appalling. It’s like saying, let them die because this is a good deterrence”, said François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

Recalling the duty of commercial ships to rescue people in distress at sea, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has said that the shipping industry is very concerned about that the primary focus of the Triton operation will be border control. The group affirms that “it will clearly be much more difficult for merchant ships to save lives at sea without the adequate provision of search and rescue services by EU Member States. Moreover, whenever a ship performs its legal and humanitarian obligations, it will continue to be incumbent on EU Member States to ensure that those who are rescued can be readily disembarked at the next port of call, even when they may lack documentation.”

As Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee responsible for monitoring Frontex and the other agencies specifically tasked with border management in the Mediterranean, Claude Moraes, has stated that he will be “pushing for an inquiry into the ethics and resources being utilised by member states in the region”.

Tineke Strik, the rapporteur for the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, said the UK announcement would be damaging for the UK’s reputation in Europe “as far as it can become any worse”. “I think it is incredible, actually. It shows that they are turning their backs on the horrible problems in the Mediterranean Sea. It is not just something to regret but to be very angry about,” she said.

Earlier this month, Italian Minister of Interior Angelino Alfano indicated that Italy was ready to end Mare Nostrum, the search and rescue operation that has saved 150,000 lives since its initiation one year ago in the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy. While Mare Nostrum operates in international waters, the joint Frontex operation Triton that is scheduled to begin on 1 November, will only be active within 30 miles off the Italian coast. Triton operation will have a budget of 2.9 million euro per month, only a third of the Mare Nostrum operation.

UNHCR and ECRE have repeatedly expressed their concerns over the ending of Mare Nostrum without a European rescue initiative to replace it.

Over 9,000 people have joined a Pro Asyl campaign asking the European Parliament to allocate the required financial resources to establish a European sea rescue service.


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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 31 October 2014. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.