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22nd Sep 2018

Migrant death rate spikes despite EU 'safety' priority

  • Operation Sophia. More than 721 deaths at sea were registered over June and July 2018 alone, despite a sharp drop in crossings. (Photo: EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia)

The European Commission on Wednesday (8 August) said its main objective in Libya is to protect migrants following a surge in deaths of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

"Our main objective is to protect migrants and that is the main reason to train the Libyan coastguards," a commission spokesman told reporters in Brussels.

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More than 721 deaths at sea were registered over June and July 2018 alone, despite a sharp drop in crossings. Amnesty International says the death rate over the two-month period is one in 16.

The comment follow demands by the NGO for an investigation into reports that the Libyan Coast Guard last month left behind a woman who was still alive on a sinking vessel.

She was found, along with a dead woman and a small child, by the NGO Proactiva charity boat.

The commission says it is looking into matter but maintains that training the Libyan Coast Guard and providing them with equipment is part of a bigger strategy to keep people safe.

Such comments clash with earlier commission statements suggesting Libya is unfit for migrant disembarkation. Open slave markets, torture, and rape are among the risks many face once trapped in Libya.

Last week, a commission spokeswoman said a person's life must not be threatened and that housing, food, and medical needs must be met before disembarkation can take place.

"The commission has consistently maintained that it does not believe these conditions are being currently met in Libya," noted the spokeswoman.

Yet once returned to Libya, many people are shuffled into notorious detention centres.

Amnesty International says the number of detainees has more than doubled in recent months, from around 4,400 in March to more than 10,000 (including around 2,000 women and children) by the end of July.

"Virtually all those in these centres have been intercepted at sea and returned by the Libyan Coast Guard, who are equipped, trained and supported by European governments," said the NGO in a report out Wednesday.

Italy is now donating another 12 patrol vessels to the Libyan coastguard to help push back migrants setting sail for Europe. Rome is hoping Libya will be able to coordinate rescues on its own.

The commission is working the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to get people out of the country.

It says some 29,000 have left Libya on their own accord to go back home, with the help of IOM, since the start of 2017. It also says almost 2,000 have been evacuated, with an aim for resettlement later on, with the help of UNHCR.

Around 54,000 people in Libya are registered with the UNHCR.

The two organisations have since come up with vague plans, taken onboard by the EU, to improve search and rescues at sea following clashes between Italy and Malta on NGO rescue boats.

Italy has shut off ports to charity vessels and has threaten to do the same for EU naval operations like Sophia.

In June, the rescue vessel Lifeline, of the German NGO Mission Lifeline, remained stranded at sea for five days with no country authorising it to dock. Malta has also cracked down on NGO boats, ratcheting up hostility against charity rescues.

The EU focus on preventing people from disembarking under a policy of breaking the business model of smugglers, and protecting migrants, appears increasingly desperate as internal wrangles over European asylum reforms remain deadlocked.

EU Commission: Libya unfit for migrant disembarkation

The European Commission declined to comment on an Italian boat that reportedly returned rescued migrants at sea back to Libya - but instead said the country is too dangerous to be considered as a place safe enough for disembarkation.

EU still not clear on where to put rescued migrants

The mandate for Operation Sophia, the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean sea, ends in December. Demands to change it, including new rules on disembarkation, are set to be agreed within the next few weeks.

Salzburg summit presses for bigger Frontex mandate

Issues of sovereignty remain entrenched following a proposal by the European Commission to expand the EU's border and coast guard, also known as Frontex, to 10,000. But EU leaders maintain a "basic consensus" of support had been reached.

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