The Ocean Viking, a search and rescue vessel operated by French NGO SOS Méditerranée, has rescued hundreds of people off the coast of Libya in recent days. According to SOS Méditerranée, 374 people were rescued within two days. Crossing the Mediterranean has been described as the world’s most dangerous migration route by UNHCR. However, the lack of a safe or legal alternative route to Europe for the purpose of making an asylum claim leaves displaced people with no choice but to risk their lives in order to seek safety.
Among the 374 rescued from the Mediterranean since Thursday, 165 were children, of whom 131 were unaccompanied. They were rescued from overcrowded, inflatable rubber dinghies and had been forcibly displaced from countries such as Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
The European Union has sought to restrict the operation of search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean. This is due to the perception that their presence acts as a pull factor, encouraging displaced people to make the crossing in order to reach Europe. However, as highlighted by the New Humanitarian, this argument is not supported by any evidence or data. Conversely, human rights groups argue that hostile border policies have effectively caused the E.U. to turn its back on those seeking asylum, thereby rendering it complicit in the entirely preventable deaths in the Mediterranean.
As a result of these hostile policies, the Ocean Viking vessel was recently held in Italy for five months. It was released in December. The Italian authorities sought to justify the blockade of the vessel through the pretext of health and safety issues. However, those working in the migration field believe that the true purpose was to disrupt the vessel’s search and rescue work, in order to further reduce the numbers of asylum seekers reaching the Italian shores.
At present, the Ocean Viking is the sole NGO managed search and rescue vessel operating in the Mediterranean area. As stated by Sophie Beau of SOS Méditerranée: “..the others have been blocked by Italian authorities like the Ocean Viking earlier.”
The North African country of Libya acts as a major gateway to Europe for those seeking to make an asylum claim. However, people smugglers in the area prey on the desperation of those forced to flee and require displaced people to pay large sums of money for a place on an overcrowded rubber dinghy headed for the European coast. Due to the lack of a safe, legal alternative, there is no choice but to attempt to cross the world’s most dangerous migration route in order to reach Europe. According to the New Humanitarian, since 2013, over 17,000 displaced people are either dead or missing as a result of crossing the Mediterranean. Further, 1 in 6 who attempt the crossing die in the process.
Many who attempt the crossing are further intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, which is funded by Italy and the EU, in order to send displaced people back to Libya and prevent arrivals on European shores. This is an asylum policy which has been widely criticized by human rights groups, as it is well known that those intercepted will likely be detained in horrific conditions upon their return to Libya. According to UN figures, at least 36,000 have been intercepted by the coastguard and returned to Libya since 2017. Therefore, to prevent further widespread loss of life and further human rights abuses, it cannot be disputed that the search and rescue efforts of vessels like the Ocean Viking are a necessity.
Asylum is a human right and the steps continuously taken by the E.U. to erode this right are inexcusable. As long as conflict exists, people are going to continue to be driven from their homes. As such, this entails the inevitability that people will continue to reach Europe for the purpose of making an asylum claim. No amount of hostile border policy will be able to prevent this from happening. Further, as highlighted by the New Humanitarian, the economic implications of Covid-19 will act as a further push factor for migration, combined with its exacerbation of existing conflicts and the great shortage of humanitarian aid. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that the E.U. no longer turns its back on displaced people and implements safe and legal routes for the purpose of making an asylum claim. It is glaringly clear that there is no other humane alternative.
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