UNCHR calls for urgent European action to stop rising migrant deaths at sea

More than 800 people have died this year alone in the Mediterranean, many of them seeking safety from conflict and civil war

‘The grim tally brings to some 800 the total number of deaths at sea this year, compared to a total 600 deaths in 2013, and 500 in 2012’ - Photo: AFM
‘The grim tally brings to some 800 the total number of deaths at sea this year, compared to a total 600 deaths in 2013, and 500 in 2012’ - Photo: AFM

More than 260 people have died or been reported missing as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe over the past ten days, the UN Refugee Agency has warned.

“Survivors reported disturbing incidents of mass drownings, suffocations and a suspected multiple stabbing. The grim tally brings to some 800 the total number of deaths at sea this year, compared to a total 600 deaths in 2013, and 500 in 2012,” the UNHCR said.

The tragedies mark an intensifying crisis on Europe’s shores, as many fleeing Eritrea, Syria and other countries torn by violence seek safety in Europe by risking their lives at sea in the hand of smugglers. A rapid rise in incidents over recent weeks has prompted calls for urgent measures by European countries to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent such tragedies.

More than 75,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014 – 25 per cent more than the 60,000 who made the same journey in the whole of 2013, and over three times the 22,500 who arrived in all of 2012.

Refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean - 1 January-30 June
Refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean - 1 January-30 June

Italy received the greatest number of arrivals (63,884), followed by Greece (10,080), Spain (1,000) and Malta (227). A further 21,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Italy since 1 July. The largest numbers came from Eritrea, Syria and Mali. Most left from North Africa, and principally Libya.

This included 10,563 children, 3,676 from Syria, who arrived in Italy in the first six months of 2014. 6,500 of the children, mostly Eritreans, were unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Over the weekend of 19-20 July alone, Italian and Maltese authorities, together with several commercial vessels, rescued 8,000 people.

António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, praised both countries for their efforts, but said European states needed to step up their assistance.

“The death of 260 people in less than ten days, in the most horrifying of circumstances, is evidence that the Mediterranean crisis is intensifying,” Guterres said. “Europeans need to take urgent action to stop this catastrophe getting worse in the second half of 2014.”

Guterres called on governments to strengthen rescue operations, provide swift access to asylum procedures for those in need of protection, and legal alternatives to dangerous sea crossings.

Rescued refugees and migrants have reported handing over their life savings to smugglers, in order to travel in unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies, packed into a few metres of space without food, water or life jackets.

The journey can take between one to four days, depending on the weather, sea and boat conditions. In several incidents, people were stranded for more than two weeks before being rescued.

On 14 July, Italian authorities rescued 12 people 40 miles off the coast of Libya. Survivors said their rubber dinghy had been carrying 121 people. Passengers panicked when it started to deflate on one side, and it capsized. A total of 109 people are missing; with one man saying he lost his pregnant wife during the incident.

On 15 July, 29 people were found dead from apparent asphyxiation in the hold of a fishing boat, and details are emerging of a horrifying incident in which as many as 60 people were stabbed and thrown overboard as they sought to escape from the hold. A total of 131 people are missing and presumed dead from the incident, including a newborn baby. Italian police are reported to have arrested five men on Tuesday in connection with the incident.

UNHCR welcomed all efforts by European authorities, particularly in Italy, to rescue boats in distress in the Mediterranean, and called on all states to continue to fulfil their obligations under international refugee law and the law of the sea.

“UNHCR recognizes the great support of shipmasters in the Mediterranean in carrying out rescue operations and asks them to remain vigilant and to continue to discharge their duty of rescuing vessels in distress.”

It also urged European countries to provide additional and better facilities to receive those rescued, and to identify longer-term solutions for refugees, including resettlement, admission based on humanitarian needs, admission schemes based on private sponsorship, facilitated access to family reunification and the use of programmes such as student or employment visas.