Hundreds drown at sea as European states block rescue operations

Aquarius SAR: Winter conditions and high seas

ITALY 2016 © Kevin McElvaney

NEW YORK/AMSTERDAM/MARSEILLE, JULY 12, 2018—More than 600 people attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean in the last four weeks—including babies and toddlers—have drowned or are presumed drowned, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures. These tragedies, which represent half of the total deaths so far in 2018, took place as there were no longer non-governmental organization (NGO) rescue boats active on the Central Mediterranean, as European governments block, obstruct, and deter rescue boats from operating.

One month ago, the search and rescue ship Aquarius, run by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was blocked by Italian authorities from disembarking 630 people rescued at sea. Further blockages and obstructions of NGO rescue ships by European states followed. 

“The European political decisions that have been taken during the past several weeks have had deadly consequences,” said Karline Kleijer, MSF head of emergencies. “There has been a cold-blooded decision to leave men, women, and children to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. This is outrageous and unacceptable. Rather than deliberately obstructing the provision of lifesaving medical and humanitarian assistance to people in distress at sea, European Governments must set up proactive and dedicated search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean.” 

Many people trying to reach Europe are refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants coming from Libya where they are facing alarming levels of violence and exploitation. 

While NGO rescue ships operating in the international waters between Malta, Italy, and Libya have been accused by European politicians of encouraging this migration in the Central Mediterranean to Europe, recent events at sea show that desperate people continue to flee Libya regardless of whether or not there are rescue ships.

A key part of the strategy to seal off the Mediterranean is equipping, training, and supporting the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea and return them to Libya. Returning people to Libya is something non-Libyan ships cannot lawfully do as the country is not recognized as a place of safety. People rescued in the international waters of Mediterranean must not be returned to Libya but should be taken to a safe port in line with international and maritime law.

Furthermore, the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard have intercepted around 10,000 people so far this year and brought them to detention centers in Libya, regardless of the consequences on people’s well-being and lives. Abdicating all responsibilities for search and rescue in the Mediterranean to the Libyan Coastguard will only result in more deaths.

As the peak season for attempted crossings approaches, saving lives must be the urgent priority. Unscrupulous smugglers, with little regard for human life, continue to put people in harm’s way using flimsy and unseaworthy vessels. There needs to be a sufficiently resourced and fully operational system for saving human lives in the Mediterranean Sea. NGO rescue ships play a vital role in helping people in distress at sea and preventing needless deaths; it’s critical that they have access to the nearest safe ports to disembark people and restock supplies.

“The political decision to close ports to disembarkations of people rescued at sea, and the total confusion in the Central Mediterranean, has led to an increased mortality on the world’s deadliest sea crossing,” said Sophie Beau, vice president of SOS MEDITERRANEE. “Europe bears the responsibility for these deaths on its conscience. European governments must react immediately and guarantee that the international maritime and humanitarian laws framing the obligation to rescue people in distress at sea are fully respected.”