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15th Dec 2018

Mediterranean migrant disaster gets muted response

  • Last year a deadly tragedy promted the EU to triple its financing for rescue missions on the Mediterranean (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

Up to 500 are feared to have drowned off the Libyan coast while trying to cross to Europe, the UN’s refugee agency said on Wednesday (20 April), but a muted response to the tragedy suggests empathy is dwindling across the continent.

UNHCR said the 41 survivors, 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child were rescued by merchant ships and taken to Kalamata, Greece on 16 April. The survivors included Somalis, Ethiopians, Egyptians and Sudanese.

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They told the UN agency that they had been part of a larger group of 100-200 people who left from Tobruk, Libya last week.

After sailing for several hours, the smugglers attempted to transfer them to a larger boat, already overcrowded with hundreds of people.

During the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank. The survivors on the smaller boat drifted for days at sea, before being rescued.

If confirmed, this incident could be the deadliest disaster since a year ago, when over 800 people drowned on their way to Italy in the Mediterranean.

However, reaction in Europe has been muted compared with the shock caused by last year's tragedy, shedding light on how sympathy for the plight of migrants has evaporated.

Last April, news of the shipwreck prompted an emergency EU summit, where leaders tripled the financing for search and rescue missions on the Mediterranean Sea.

“The situation in the Mediterranean is a tragedy,” European leaders said in their conclusions last April.

So far, only Italian prime minster Matteo Renzi and a Maltese minister have spoken out about the latest disaster.

Renzi said on Wednesday that Italian rescuers were trying to recover the shipwreck and the bodies.

Renzi has been calling for European help in stemming the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, asking for financial assistance for sub-Saharan Africa.

Carmelo Abela, Malta's home affairs minister, said in Luxembourg: "This tragedy is yet another horrific blemish on Europe’s collective conscience."

EU foreign and defence ministers earlier this week discussed a variety of measures to help Libya, from financial aid to a possible mission to improve the country’s police and criminal justice capacities, but did not commit to any specific measures.

Since the beginning of the year, 24,940 migrants arrived in Italy by sea, according to UN figures, on the route used mostly by African migrants.

It represents an increase of 4.7 percent compared with the same period last year, according to Italian interior ministry data.

The number of arrivals has been rising since March, as the weather gets warmer.

Over 150,000 migrants reached Italy by boat in 2015, the vast majority departing from Libya.

EU leaders stuck on asylum reform

Migration was overshadowed by Brexit at the EU summit, with leaders stuck on key legislation. Some warned that free movement could be at risk.

EU summit hits asylum fatigue as deadlock continues

Leaders at the EU summit are unlikely to discuss migration, preferring instead to rubber-stamp pre-cooked conclusions. Recent proposals by the European Commission to get some of the reforms finalised are also unlikely to get broad support. The two-year deadlock continues.

EUobserved

EU Commission spins half-truth on 'unsafe' refugee boats

The European Commission claims sea crossings from Libya are more dangerous because smugglers are using less seaworthy boats. But it fails to explain why that is - an omission of their own policies of boat capture and seizure.

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