25 people are feared to be dead after their boat, which was attempting to cross the Mediterranean, sank on Friday. Libya’s coastguard reports that the rubber boat sank around 3 AM (05:00 GMT) several kilometres off Tajoura, east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. 115 others were rescued in the search operation.
Thousands attempt to make the journey to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea every year and Libya is the main human smuggling point in North Africa. The UN reports that 100’s have already died attempting to make the crossing this year alone, and more than 4,500 people died attempting the crossing last year. The crossing is so dangerous because refugees usually travel in flimsy inflatable crafts with only a small amounts of fuel, which will only take them outside of territorial waters and into international waters where EU rescue vessels are stationed. But, as reported in this most recent case, boats are often overloaded, which can cause them to take on water and sink.
In an attempt to stem the flow of refugees trying to reach Europe by sea, European leaders have agreed on what is described as a controversial plan. The plan, which was signed earlier this year in Malta will see the bloc provide monetary assistance to Libya’s government in a bid to help them step up efforts to stop migrant boats from leaving their shores. The aim of the plan is to “break the business model” of people traffickers, which has seen the delivery of 181,000 to EU through Libya and Italy last year. The plan will also see the EU assist in establishing “safe” refugee camps in Libya and setting up voluntary return programs.
However, humanitarian groups have expressed grave doubts and concern with the plan. For instance, Doctors Without Borders released the following statement: “Libya is not a safe place and blocking people in the country or returning them to Libya makes a mockery of the EU’s so-called fundamental values of human dignity and rule of law.” It is feared that returning women and children to inhumane conditions will leave them vulnerable to rape, beatings, and forced labour. As Ester Asin of Save the Children argues, “sending children back to a country many have described as a living hell is not a solution.”
This latest incident is another tragic illustration of how desperate these refugees are. Despite dangers, many continue to make the journey and plans, like the one proposed, can rightly be seen as only increasing the danger for some of the world’s most vulnerable and desperate. Yves Pascouau, Director of Migration and Mobility Policies at the European Policy Centre, argues that attempts to stem refugee flows by breaking the business models of people smugglers are futile: “we all know that if we really want to break this business model, we also need to provide legal ways to enter the EU, which [do not exist] today,” he said. What is needed, is stability in the region, which will ultimately be the only way to stem refugee flows, but until then, what deserves urgent attention is the safety of those trying to flee. Rather than block their attempts, safer and legal passages should be established.