23rd Sep 2021

Europe needs to help sea rescues, say NGOs

  • Italy's Mare Nostrum helped save some 150,000 people but was shut down in late 2014 (Photo: EUobserver)

NGOs are pressing the EU to help rescue people at sea, following similar recent calls from the European Parliament.

The demand on Wednesday (16 June) comes amid heightened prospects that more will attempt to cross the central Mediterranean from Libya over the coming weeks.

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Aside from Doctors without Borders' (MSF) Geo Barents rescue boat, no other NGO vessel is currently at sea.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with Ecre, a Brussels-base NGO, want member states to dispatch their own ships to help rescues.

"It is shameful and tragic that EU countries can't agree on something as fundamental as saving lives at sea," said Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Some 667 people have died so far along the central Mediterranean route this year. The same period last year saw 221 deaths.

Meanwhile, over 13,000 have been intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to a country wrecked by conflict since the start of the year, compared to the 11,891 intercepted throughout the whole of 2020.

The European Commission in 2013 had made similar calls for sea rescues after around 360 people drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

At the time, it proposed an extensive search and rescue deployment by the EU's border agency Frontex, spanning "the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain."

Italy also had its own operation Mare Nostrum, which rescued some 150,000 people before ending in October 2014.

But EU naval operations have since been scaled back, following years of bickering among member states over EU internal asylum reforms.

"In 2020 and 2021, Frontex assisted in the rescue of 2,600 people," said its spokesperson, in an email.

The commission says it wants better coordination among EU states but has yet to respond if it supports a European-led search and rescue as proposed by the NGOs and the European Parliament.

Meanwhile, maritime-humanitarian organisation SOS Méditerranée is gearing up its chartered Ocean Viking rescue ship.

"Ocean Viking is setting sail to Marseille for a port call before going back to sea as soon as possible," said an SOS Méditerranée spokesperson.

SOS Méditerranée director of operations, Frédéric Penard, said even a couple of assets from member states would make a difference.

"We are talking about emergencies happening everyday and even more likely in the coming weeks," he said, in a telephone call.

"For us the issue is an European issue and the response should be a European response," he added.

He also noted the EU's Irini naval operation is deliberately sailing in areas where the need for rescues were unlikely.

The prospect of any European-led search and rescue remain dim, given entrenched divisions by EU states.

Some of those divisions surfaced earlier this week ahead of the upcoming EU presidency under Slovenia.

Branko Grims, a senior MP in the Slovenian parliament, took a hardline stand on migration in a conference with MEPs.

"We need to protect our borders and we need to protect our borders more stringently," he had said.

But Detlef Seif, a member of the German Bundestag, warned the EU's internal asylum deadlocks over sharing asylum seekers still have to be sorted.

"Measures about the external dimensions can only truly be effective when we have a coherent and consistent internal asylum policy within the EU," he said.

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Last week, the UN high commissioner for human rights said the EU and its member states are partly responsible for making the central Mediterranean more dangerous for asylum-seeker hopefuls. The EU rejects that - despite evidence suggesting otherwise.

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