Saturday

21st Sep 2019

Migrant death toll at sea reaches 900

  • Studies show that NGOs at sea do not constitute a pull factor (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)

Another 40 people perished off the Libyan coast on Tuesday (27 August) while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to claim asylum in the EU, bringing the total death count to some 900 so far this year.

Around 60, most of whom were reportedly from Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, survived the latest shipwreck, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said.

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Some 150 died last month in a similar incident in what the UNHCR at the time called the "worst Mediterranean tragedy of this year".

The overall number of people dying to reach European shores may have dropped when compared to previous years, but the risks have multiplied.

Those risks appear driven, in part, by Italian and Maltese efforts to force NGOs and their charity boats to stop search and rescue operations.

Politicians have accused NGO rescues of encouraging migrants to take to the water.

But the numbers did not bear out the accusations of a "pull factor", the UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Charlie Yaxley, recently said.

"This year, when NGO boats have been at sea, 31 people fled Libya by boat per day. When there have been NO NGO boats, that rises to 41," he said earlier this month.

The crackdown on NGOs continues to intensify since Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, entered office last summer.

The EU's naval operation in the region, Sophia, has also stopped search and rescue missions, leaving an over-stretched Libyan Coast Guard to do most of the work.

Italy's civil aviation authorities went further on Tuesday, grounding planes operated by two humanitarian groups which had been used to look for migrants at risk of drowning.

The planes, operated by German NGO Sea-Watch and the French NGO Pilotes Voluntaires, had been flying reconnaissance missions for the past two years.

Sea-Watch spokesman Ruben Neugebauer is reported to have said the groundings are politically motivated and a violation of international law.

Earlier this month, Salvini also blocked two rescue boats carrying more than 500 migrants from disembarking on the island of Lampedusa.

Malta refused to help people until the European Commission brokered a deal to send some 100 migrants to Spain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Portugal instead.

The stand-offs follow a recently passed Italian security decree to fine NGO captains up to €1m for violations.

The European Commission has declined to comment on whether the Salvini decree falls within the remit of EU values until EU lawyers had it fully evaluated.

The Brussels-executive has also declined to give a deadline on when that evaluation might be finalised.

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