Europe Not Living Up To Its Own Human Rights Standards

The perilous Mediterranean crossing between North Africa and Europe has been without NGO search and rescue ships since August 26.

Anti-migration policies put forward by the Italian and Maltese governments have succeeded in frustrating the efforts of NGO workers and restricting the number of rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean area. The fate of migrants has been left up to underequipped regional coastguards, resulting in a sharp increase in the number of drownings. The numbers are likely to get worse if action is not taken soon.

The co-founder of SOS MEDITERRANEE European network, Sophie Beau, said “The inadequate and incoherent EU response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean has led to more deaths on this route this year.” Prior to a French and German leaders meeting earlier this month, the General Director of SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany, Verena Papke said in a press release, “SOS MEDITERRANEE calls on all EU member States, and especially on the Franco-German pair who is meeting today in the port city of Marseille, to take their responsibility and put the rescue of human lives on top of their political agenda.”

Despite the frustration of the NGOs, other actors in the region might be content with the state of affairs. According to The Week, a U.K. tabloid, “Italy has obtained what it wanted,” commented Fulvio Vassallo, an asylum law professor at the University of Palermo. “Rome has managed to get rid of the eyes of the NGOs, who could testify to the abuses of the Libyan coastguard.”

Even though the number of migrants has significantly decreased since the crisis peaked in 2015, European countries are still deeply divided on how to contain and manage the phenomenon.  Politics, bureaucracy and anti-immigrant policies are shifting the focus away from what really matters, those in distress at sea. UNHCR’s Europe Bureau Director Pascale Moreau said to Reuters, “With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives.” Especially when, according to The Telegraph, the main rescue missions off the Libyan coast are now conducted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which has only two vessels.

According to the UNHCR, in 2017, 172,301 migrants arrived by sea to Italy, Greece, Spain and Cyprus while 3,139 were recorded as dead or missing. The total number of refugees and migrants so far this year is considerably smaller, 74,388 arrivals. Yet, the total estimation of dead and missing migrants for the same period is 1,642 – almost half that of 2017. Restricting the analysis to the Central Mediterranean area, the UNHCR announced the ratio of people dying to those arriving in Europe is currently 1:18. This contrasts with one death for every 42 arrivals in 2017. Given these numbers, the fact that no real action is being taken with enough urgency is increasingly worrying.

EU leaders met in June with the aim of reaching a deal to address the three-year-old migration crisis. But, as The Telegraph neatly put it, the only victory was that they “just agreed to disagree.” According to Reuters, the latest plan of action that the European Commission is considering is “to strengthen its external borders and push foreign states to do more to deter migrants.” They are also thinking of more “work pathways for migrants to get to the EU legally.” Nothing directly addressing the plight of those dying at sea.

A long-term action plan is needed. A comprehensive and human-centred approach. In the short term, the 2015 UNHCR Central Mediterranean Sea Initiative (CMSI) outlines 12 steps aimed at saving lives focusing on three main areas of action: 1) within the European Union; 2) in collaboration with countries of transit and first asylum; and 3) in collaboration with countries of origin. In terms of the issues referred to in this article, the CMSI urges EU member states to take the lead and coordinate “robust and predictable SAR operations along Mediterranean routes.” It mentions the central role of commercial shipmasters in rescuing migrants in distress at sea. Adding that “states should consider setting up a scheme to compensate shipping companies for losses incurred while rescuing people.” And, of key importance, it urges European countries to plan and identify “places of safety” for the rapid disembarkation of those on-board rescue vessels.

The CMSI recommendations are three years old but remain pertinent. It is essential that the EU leaders place human lives above politics.