European policies continue to claim lives at sea

Rescue May 7th, 2018

Mediterranean Sea 2018 © Anthony Jean/SOS Méditerranée

One year since Italy's decision to close its ports to humanitarian vessels and the ensuing political standoff over the fate of people rescued at sea, at least 1,151 men, women and children have died in the Mediterranean, and more than 10,000 have been forcibly returned to Libya, showing the human cost of reckless European migration policies, the organizations Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE said today.

"The response by European governments to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea and Libya has been a race to the very bottom," said Annemarie Loof, MSF operational manager. "One year ago, we implored European governments to put people's lives before politics. We pleaded for a humane response—for an end to the dehumanization of vulnerable people at sea for political gain. Yet one year on, the European response has reached deplorable new lows."

Since the Aquarius search and rescue ship, operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with MSF, was blocked from entering Italian ports one year ago, people rescued in the Mediterranean have been trapped in limbo as European leaders debate their fates. In at least 18 incidents, people have been stranded at sea for days or even weeks after they are rescued, as a political standoff ensues over port access.

Political leaders are now eroding the principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea. Commercial and even military ships are increasingly unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded at sea and denied a place of safety to disembark. Commercial ships that conduct rescues must risk a standoff or violate international law by returning vulnerable people to Libya, where armed conflict is ongoing.

"This political deadlock among European countries and their inability to put lives first is only more shocking today as fighting continues to rage in Tripoli," said Sam Turner, MSF head of mission for Libya and the Mediterranean.

In the last six weeks, vulnerable people have tried to flee Libya in increasing numbers, with more than 3,800 people boarding unsafe boats to attempt the crossing. While MSF, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and other organizations have called for the humanitarian evacuation of refugees and migrants out of Libya since the start of the conflict in Tripoli, such evacuations are too limited. This year, more than twice as many people have been forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard as have been evacuated from Libya and resettled elsewhere. European leaders support these returns knowing exactly the cycle of exploitation, torture, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention that these people are exposed to in Libya.

"The lack of humanitarian vessels in the Central Mediterranean during this period should put to rest the unfounded allegation of a 'pull factor,'" said Frédéric Penard, SOS MEDITERRANEE's director of operations. "The reality is even with fewer and fewer humanitarian vessels at sea, people with few alternatives will continue to undertake this deadly sea crossing regardless of the risks. The only difference now is people are nearly four times more likely to die compared to last year, according to the International Organization for Migration."

MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE continue to call on all EU member states to:

  • Urgently provide proactive and sufficient search and rescue capacity, including competent and responsive coordinating authorities in the Mediterranean Sea, to prevent unnecessary loss of life.
  • End punitive actions against aid organizations trying to provide lifesaving assistance.
  • Withdraw existing political and material support to the system of forced returns of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to Libya.
  • Establish sustainable, reliable, and predictable disembarkation systems offering places of safety where survivors are treated humanely with appropriate services and where they can seek asylum.

One year ago, over the weekend of June 9 and 10, 2018, the Aquarius search and rescue vessel, operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with MSF, rescued 230 people and received an additional 400 people from Italian naval and coastguard ships. Although the rescue and transfers of these 630 people were initiated and coordinated by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC), the Italian authorities denied the Aquarius authorization to disembark them safely in Italy according to international maritime law. Eventually, on June 11, the Spanish government intervened and offered to let the Aquarius disembark in Valencia. The Aquarius informed the Spanish and Italian MRCC that due to overcrowded conditions, safety, and security concerns, the Aquarius could only sail safely to Spain with a maximum of 100 survivors on board. On June 12, after a 48-hour standoff, and despite MSF's and SOS MEDITERRANEE's concerns about the humanitarian and medical impact of the sea journey to Valencia, the Italian authorities instructed the Aquarius to transfer 524 people back to Italian ships and sail with the remaining 106 rescued on a four-day journey to Spain. On June 17, the Aquarius and Italian coastguard and navy ships disembarked all 630 people in Valencia, Spain.