European policies continue to claim lives at sea

Italy has closed its ports to migrant vessels. Photo credit: The Organisation for World Peace

ROME - One year on from Italy’s decision to close its ports to humanitarian vessels and the first political stand-off over the fate of people rescued in the Central Mediterranean Sea, at least 1,151 vulnerable men, women and children have died, and over 10,000 more forcibly returned to Libya, exposed to additional unnecessary suffering. These avoidable deaths expose the human cost of reckless European migration policies, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE said Wednesday.

 “The response by European governments to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea and Libya has been a race to the very bottom,” said Annemarie Loof, MSF Operational Manager. “One year ago we implored European governments to put people’s lives before politics. We pleaded for a humane response; for an end to the dehumanisation of vulnerable people at sea for political gain. Yet one year on, the European response has reached deplorable new lows.”

 Since the Aquarius search and rescue vessel, operated by SOS MEDITERRANEE in partnership with MSF, was blocked from entering Italian ports one year ago, stand-offs in the Central Mediterranean  Sea have become the new “normal”, with over 18 incidents publically documented. These stand-offs add up to a combined 140 days, or over four months, that 2,443 vulnerable men, women and children have been stranded at sea while EU leaders debated their futures.

 The fallout from the criminalisation of saving lives at sea is not only affecting humanitarian vessels, but eroding the very principle of rendering assistance to persons in distress at sea. Commercial and even military ships are increasingly unwilling to respond to those in distress due to the high risk of being stranded at sea and denied a place of safety to disembark. For commercial ships that conduct rescues, they are placed in an extremely difficult situation where they must risk a stand-off or return vulnerable people to Libya in violation of international law.

 “One year ago we warned that the dangerous and inhumane political stand-offs at sea should not set a precedent. Yet this is exactly what happened,” said Sam Turner, MSF Head of Mission for Libya and Mediterranean. “This political deadlock among European countries and their inability to put lives first, is only more shocking today as fighting continues to rage in Tripoli.”

 In the last six weeks alone, vulnerable people have tried to flee Libya in increasing numbers, with over 3,800 boarding unsafe boats to attempt the crossing. While UNHCR and other organisations such as MSF have called for the humanitarian evacuation of refugees and migrants out of Libya since the start of the conflict in Tripoli, the reality is for every person evacuated or resettled this year more than twice as many have been forcibly returned to Libya by the Libyan Coastguard. European leaders support these returns knowing exactly the cycle of exploitation, torture, sexual violence and arbitrary detention that these people are exposed to in Libya.

 “The lack of humanitarian vessels in the Central Mediterranean during this period should put to rest the unfounded allegation of a ‘pull factor’,” said Frédéric Penard, SOS MEDITERRANEE's Director of Operations. “The reality is even with fewer and fewer humanitarian vessels at sea, people with few alternatives will continue to undertake this deadly sea crossing regardless of the risks. The only difference now is people are nearly four times more likely to die compared to last year (according to the International Organisation for Migration.”

 One year since the first stand-off at sea MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE continue to call on all EU member states to:

 - Urgently provide proactive and sufficient search and rescue capacity, including competent and responsive coordinating authorities in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent unnecessary loss of life.

 - End punitive actions against NGOs trying to provide lifesaving assistance in lieu of such capacity.

 - Withdraw existing political and material support to the system of forced returns of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to Libya to be placed in arbitrary and inhumane detention.

 - Establish sustainable, reliable and predictable disembarkation systems offering places of safety where survivors will be treated humanely, provided with appropriate services and will be able to seek asylum.

SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European organization for the rescue of people in distress at sea. It was founded in 2015 and launched its rescue operations in February 2016. Since then, the organization has, together with its medical partner Doctors Without Borders (MSF), assisted 29.532 people. In 2017, SOS MEDITERRANEE has received the UNESCO Peace Prize. The non-profit organization based in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland is exclusively funded by donations.