UNHCR shock at latest deaths on Mediterranean

UNHCR: Rescue capacity needed more urgently than ever • Amnesty: European governments’ ongoing negligence leads to 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths

File photo: MOAS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
File photo: MOAS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

With a new and large-scale boat tragedy reported on the Mediterranean, UNHCR has appealed afresh to governments across the region to prioritize the saving of lives, including by urgently expanding and upgrading search and rescue capacities.

The latest incident involves the capsizing of a double-deck boat on Monday in waters about 120 kilometres south of Lampedusa. 142 people were rescued and eight bodies recovered.

But some 400 others said by survivors to have been aboard are feared lost.

“I was deeply shocked when hearing the news that another boat, an overcrowded boat capsized in the Mediterranean and where four hundred people died. This only demonstrates how important it is to have a robust rescue-at-sea mechanism in the central Mediterranean,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said.

“Unfortunately Mare Nostrum was never replaced by an equivalent capacity to rescue people, and at the same time the legal avenues for those who need protection to be able to come Europe.”

The Mare Nostrum Operation was a major search and rescue effort on the Mediterranean established by Italy following the Lampedusa disasters of October 2013 in which hundreds of lives were lost in two boat incidents. It was ended in December 2014.

Amnesty International said European governments’ ongoing negligence towards the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean had contributed to a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths since the beginning of 2015, Amnesty International said today amid fears that as many as 400 more have died amid rescue missions off the coast of Libya in recent days.

On 28 April, Amnesty International will launch a new report which offers an in-depth analysis of the current crisis and includes direct testimonies of survivors of shipwrecks during the first three months of 2015.

It details how current search-and-rescue operations are a far cry from what is needed to address the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean.

“How many more people have to die before European governments acknowledge that relying on a patchwork quilt of resources for search-and-rescue operations is not enough?” said Gauri Van Gulik, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.

“Thousands of desperate migrants and refugees continue to make the world’s most dangerous sea crossing, and hundreds have already died this year – a massive increase over the same period in 2014.”

‘Most dangerous crossing’

UNHCR said the Mediterranean has emerged in recent years as the most dangerous of the world’s four major sea routes in use by refugees and migrants. The other three main routes involve the Bahamas & Caribbean, the Red Sea & Gulf of Aden, and the Bay of Bengal.

In 2014, 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean, and at least 3500 lives were lost.

So far in 2015, some 31,500 people are known to have made crossings to Italy and Greece – the first and second largest countries of arrival respectively. And numbers have recently been picking up further. According to the Italian Coast Guard more than 8,500 people have been rescued from several dozen boats and rubber dinghies since 10 April. If the 400 deaths are confirmed from the latest incident the death toll so far this year will have reached 900.

Amnesty International said that all indications point to a continued rise in the number of migrants and refugees making this trip as the weather improves, violence and persecution continue in countries like Syria and Eritrea, and instability persists in Libya, the launching point for the majority of the people-smuggling voyages across the Mediterranean. 

“Europe has scaled back search-and-rescue capacity based on the flawed argument that such operations were acting as a ‘pull factor’, attracting more migrants. But the reality in the Mediterranean is exposing that fallacy, since the numbers of desperate people seeking to make it to Europe are only going up,” said Gauri Van Gulik.

“Leaders in London, Paris, Berlin and other European capitals must admit that the current strategy isn’t working and throw their full weight behind a robust and concerted humanitarian operation in the Mediterranean, with at least the same resources as the Italian Mare Nostrum operation which was shut down last year.”