Latest Mediterranean tragedy exposes EU’s failure on rescue operations

Photo: Italian coast guard vessels used in search & rescue missions in the southern Mediterranean. © Amnesty International

The deaths of at least 10 more refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean expose how European governments are still failing to provide adequate resources for a coordinated search-and-rescue operation that would save countless lives, Amnesty International said today.

Merchant vessels and national coastguards have again responded valiantly to the immense and growing challenge of saving the lives of vulnerable migrants, refugees and asylum seekers off Europe’s southern shores. But that’s far from enough in the face of this growing humanitarian crisis. Without a European search-and-rescue operation, the European Union’s approach looks increasingly haphazard and negligent.

Gauri van Gulik, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International

Almost 1,000 refugees and migrants in distress

Within a 24-hour period on 3 March, eight separate ad-hoc search-and-rescue operations in the Strait of Sicily saved at least 941 migrants. In one incident a boat capsized when the refugees, who according to the Italian coast guard included many Syrians, saw a towboat in the distance and bunched together on one side of the boat. Although 121 people were rescued from this boat, 10 corpses were retrieved.

The most recent SOS calls came from around 50 nautical miles (92km) north of Libya, far beyond the waters patrolled by the European Union (EU) Triton border management operation. Merchant vessels, as well as the Italian and Tunisian coast guards responded to the distress calls. One Triton vessel was also involved to bolster national efforts.

EU ‘sense of urgency’

At a press briefing today in Brussels, the European Commission stated that the EU needs a collective “sense of urgency” about its response to migration to Europe.
A new European Agenda on Migration, set for release in mid-May, will include the increase of safe and legal migration routes to Europe. But it is not expected to pave the way for a coordinated search-and-rescue mission to respond to the growing numbers of deaths at sea.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called for an EU-wide search-and-rescue mission with at least the same mandate and resources as Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation, which saved more than 170,000 lives before it was shut down late last year.

Today the European Commission publicly recognised that Triton was not a replacement for Italy’s Mare Nostrum. Surely a sense of urgency should include pulling out all the stops to fill the gap left by the closure of this vital search-and-rescue mission.

Iverna McGowan, acting director of Amnesty International European Institutions Office

Other international bodies have echoed this call. In a press release issued ahead of a key meeting of the UN’s International Maritime Organization in London today, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), called on EU member states to “act urgently to prevent the loss of thousands more lives”.