The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) says 441 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean in January, February, and March this year.
That’s the deadliest for this period since 2017.
The IOM says that failings in state-led rescues have been costing lives.
This is likely an undercount of the true number of lives lost in the Mediterranean. More than 300 people are unaccounted for from so-called “invisible shipwrecks” – where boats are reported missing but no wreckage or survivors are found.
IOM Director General, António Vitorino, said “The persisting humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean is intolerable.”
The Mediterranean crossing is the deadliest migrant crossing route in the world. More than 20,000 people have lost their lives on the most common central Mediterranean journey to Italy since 2014 according to IOM, and more than 26,000 in total across the Mediterranean. The exact number at this writing is 26,358, as indicated on the dashboard of the IOM Missing Migrants Project.
With so many lives lost Vitorino said: “I fear that these deaths have been normalised.”
After decreasing during the pandemic the number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean has been increasing again.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated more than 100,000 refugees arrived in Italy by boat in 2022 and almost 1,400 migrants died trying to make the crossing that year. Last week some 3000 migrants arrived in Italy, totally overcrowding the Lampedusa island facilities.
Last year there were 330,000 irregular border crossings into the EU in total, the most since 2016.
While Libya was previously the most common setting off point for migrants trying to reach Europe, increasing numbers have been leaving from Tunisia. Where migrants have faced attacks after an inflammatory and racist speech by the country’s President Kais Saied at the end of February.
People are dying in the waters of the Mediterranean. Most of their calls for help go unheard.
States must increase and support search and rescue to save lives at sea.
— IOM – UN Migration 🇺🇳 (@UNmigration) April 12, 2023
The IOM says saving lives at sea is a legal obligation of states. However, despite the risk to migrants, the European response has been to take an increasingly harder line on migration.
In December, Frontex – the EU wide border and coast guard agency – was accused by Human Rights Watch of being complicit in abuse due to their work with Libyan authorities on preventing migration. Migrants who have been apprehended in the Mediterranean by Libyan authorities and returned to Libya have reported being beaten, arbitrarily detained, and forced to buy their freedom.
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Italy has implemented increasingly tough laws on migration. Recently a new set of rules for migrant charity ships was implemented. The new law requires ships to request access to a port and sail to it “without delay” after a rescue, rather than remain at sea looking for other migrant boats in distress. Captains breaching the new rules risk fines of up to 50,000 euros and repeated violations can result in their vessels being impounded.
On the positive side, and as noted by UNHCR which welcomed the move, Italy has just implemented a state of emergency to address the migration issue, thus freeing up extra funding.
Malta, along the route for many migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean, have simply taken to not responding to boats that need rescuing.
This is costing lives.
The IOM reported that delays in State-led rescues have been a factor in at least six incidents so far this year leading to the deaths of at least 127 people. In a seventh incident the complete lack of response led to the lives of at least 73 migrants being lost.
Too many people are dying while trying to reach Europe.
UNHCR is calling on the EU to ensure:
✔️ More search and rescue capacity
✔️ Safe ports for disembarkation
✔️ EU-wide agreement for disembarking rescued peoplepic.twitter.com/ctvD0Jgm8A
— UNHCR Representation for EU Affairs (@Refugees_EU) March 27, 2023
The NGOs who try and make up for the states’ failings are not enough.
Adding to the confusion is the probable fake news fanned by national populist political parties claiming that there might be links between people smugglers in North Africa and aid groups in Europe. For example, this argument was put forward earlier this year by Carmelo Zuccaro, the chief prosecutor of the Sicilian port city of Catania, but on March 1 he retracted himself, declaring he had only been expressing a “hypothesis” and had no proof that could be used in court.
“The ample amount of money that some of the newer NGOs have is an element of suspicion and it is something we are looking into… No evidence has yet been found” of illicit funding, Zuccaro said.
NGOs’ actions have been diminished as states have made their work harder. In March alone one rescue ship faced the Libyan coast guard firing shots into the air while another was detained by Italy.
A dedicated and organised state response is essential to save lives in the Mediterranean. Yet currently state failings are costing lives, made clear by Vitorino who said: “Delays and gaps in State-led SAR [Search and Rescue] are costing human lives.”
What is needed to solve the migrant issue: EU action
While individual European states appear to be floundering, the European Union has adopted various measures aimed at solving the problem of migration flux across the Mediterranean and is proposing a new policy that could go a long way to solve the issue.
One of these measures is resettlement, which allows refugees in need of protection to enter the EU legally and safely without having to risk their lives by making dangerous journeys. Since 2015, successful EU-sponsored resettlement schemes have helped more than 98,000 of the most vulnerable people in need of international protection to find shelter in the European Union.
In addition to resettlement, the EU has also adopted rules to manage legal migration flows, process asylum requests and return illegal migrants.
On 27 April 2022, the European Commission presented a communication setting out an approach towards a new and sustainable EU legal migration policy, attracting the skills and talent that the EU needs to address labour shortages and replying to demographic change in Europe.
Bottom line, we are seeing a failure in European policy as the notorious Dublin regulations have still not been revised and reformed in such a way that all EU member countries cooperate to solve the migrant issue. Instead, the onus of solution is left to the countries of entry (mainly Italy, Spain and Greece).
One can only hope that the EU member states will now move forward and that the migrant issue will finally get a solution of sorts – though it remains to be seen exactly what Europe will do in the end.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: A migrant boat is approached by a US naval vessel in the Mediterranean, July, 2016. Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia.