EU ‘burying heads in the sand’ as hundreds more migrants die at sea off Italy

The European Union and its member states must hang their heads in shame following reports this morning that as many as 300 migrants are believed to have died in the high seas off the Italian island of Lampedusa, said Amnesty International.

“This new tragedy realizes our worst fears about the end of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation and exposes the predictable consequences of the European Union’s failure to provide an adequate replacement,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.

“The humanitarian crisis that sparked the need for Mare Nostrum has not gone away. With people continuing to flee war and persecution, EU member states must stop burying their heads in the sand whilst hundreds keep dying at sea.”

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the number of irregular migrants arriving by sea in January 2015 increased by around 60% over the same month last year, when Mare Nostrum was in place. This makes a mockery of suggestions that the search and rescue operation – whose demise was widely publicized – was encouraging migrants to take this dangerous route.

The EU’s operation Triton, dubbed as a replacement for Mare Nostrum, is not focused on search and rescue, does not routinely operate in international waters, and is significantly reduced in scale.

“It’s a simple equation – as the number of people taking this perilous sea route goes up and the resources put into search and rescue go down, more people will die,” said John Dalhuisen.

On Monday 9 February, 29 migrants died, most of them of hypothermia, after Italian coast guards rescued them from an inflatable dinghy carrying 106 people, including children. Reports suggest that the rescue operation was extremely difficult due to severe weather conditions.

According to Italian media reports, nine survivors from two other boats informed the Italian coast guards that more than 200 migrants were on two other dinghies, while a third one, according to still unconfirmed reports, is said to have disappeared with no survivors, carrying a further estimated 100 people to their death. The dinghies were believed to be drifting in extreme sea conditions with waves as high as 8 metres and temperatures just a few degrees above zero, according to coast guards’ statements. Those who died were believed to be between 18 and 25 years old and from sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s possible the Italian coast guards did what they could with the resources they had. They clearly were not enough. Unless EU member states commit to significantly increasing search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean, tragedies like these will only multiply,” said John Dalhuisen.