7th Jul 2022

Parliament observes minute of silence for drowned refugees from Libya

  • Too late: Lampedusa coast guard ships did not arrive in time to rescue the refugees (Photo: Valentina Pop)

MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday (6 April) observed a minute of silence for the up to 250 migrants and asylum seekers feared dead after a boat coming from Libya sank off the Italian coast of Lampedusa.

The boat, carrying around 300 African and Asian migrants and asylum seekers fleeing Libya, capsized during the night of 5-6 April while trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.

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The coast guard was able to save 47 people and three more were rescued by fishermen on Thursday morning, with high winds and rough seas making it hard for helicopters and ships to operate.

According to the International Organisation for Migration who spoke to some of the survivors, the boat was laden beyond capacity and had left the Libyan coast with migrants and asylum seekers from Somalia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Chad and Sudan. Some 40 women and five children were on board. Only two women survived the shipwreck.

Survivors transferred to Lampedusa told IOM aid workers that when the rescuers arrived, the boat was already sinking and they had to swim towards the coast guard ship. Many drowned because they were unable to swim or were dragged down by desperate fellow passengers.

After an influx of over 20,000 migrants from Tunisia in the past two months, the tiny island of Lampedusa - inhabited by 5,000 fishermen and tourism providers - has seen some 2,000 mostly African refugees arrive from Libya in the past ten days.

Observing this trend, MEPs from centre-left groups on Wednesday called on member states and the European Commission to immediately activate a special refugee status for people fleeing the Libyan war.

"The terrible reports of a Libyan refugee boat which capsized at sea near Lampedusa should be clear evidence to EU countries of the immediate and critical nature of the refugee flows in the Mediterranean and it requires urgent EU action," said Socialist MEP Claude Moraes from Luxembourg.

"We therefore welcome the initiative taken today by commissioner Malmstrom to finally call on EU governments to change their policy and implement the temporary protection mechanism to ensure some burden sharing between EU countries in a time of asylum crisis," Moraes added.

His Portuguese colleague Rui Tavares from the leftist GUE-NGL group also saw reason for the special refugee status to be granted and EU asylum policies revised as soon as possible.

Member states have blocked a so-called resettlement programme allowing refugees to be distributed evenly among member states.

"EU refugee policy is a disgrace. We have created a situation where these people must wait in camps within and outside the EU, waiting for a clear answer. The EU knows that it must increase the number of refugees it resettles but is now in a situation where it is playing with lives," he said.

In a separate vote, MEPs narrowly approved a bill calling on member states to enhance minimum procedural safeguards, such as free legal assistance, the right to information, and the right to a personal interview. Vulnerable applicants, such as children, people with disabilities or LGBTI people should be given special attention, the parliament says.

"The EU cannot bear the costs of not having an effective asylum system, even more now in the light of the recent turmoil", said French Socialist Sylvie Guillaume MEP, who drafted the parliament's position.

She noted that the reform of the EU's asylum policies is bogged down in the council of ministers, especially when it comes to revising the so-called Dublin regulation allowing governments to send back asylum seekers to the first EU state of entry - a rule which is temporarily being ignored in the case of Greece, where asylum conditions are seen as too poor.

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