2nd Oct 2023

EU leadership rehash old ideas to save migrant lives at sea

  • Malta refused to cooperate with the Ocean Viking, during a rescue operation involving disabled children, in their SAR zone. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)
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EU leadership on Wednesday (23 November) rehashed decade-old statements on the importance of saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

"Saving life is always our first responsibility," EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, told MEPs in Strasbourg.

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Margaritis Schinas, the vice-president of the European Commission, and Mikuláš Ben, Czech minister for European Affairs, made similar assertions.

But those statements appear increasingly hollow.

In 2013, EU summit conclusions said EU states were determined "to reduce the risk of further tragedies" after 366 migrants lost their lives off the coast of Lampedusa, an Italian island.

Over 25,000 have died after that declaration, according to the International Organization for Migration, making the Central Mediterranean the world's deadliest migratory route.

The issue is set to be discussed on Friday among EU interior ministers, following a public spat between Paris and Rome over the disembarkation of 234 people from the Ocean Viking rescue vessel.

The European Commission says its five-page action plan, presented earlier this week, will stop people from crossing the Central Mediterranean.

This includes reinforcing coast guards in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia and securing a greater role for the EU's border police Frontex in oversea missions.

"In the case of Libya, we are complicit in a failed state. And we have armed gangs who are wearing uniforms that have been paid for by the European Union," said Belgian Green MEP, Philippe Lamberts.

Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik also faulted the European Commission's the action plan.

"It repeats what we already know isn't working. We don't need more migration deals that lead to the containment of people in hell," she said.

But it also demands a more coordinated approach on search and rescue, in reference to the EU wide-asylum and migration reforms under discussions for the past two years.

And it seeks to get more asylum seekers relocated under a so-called solidarity mechanism that has largely failed to deliver.

Those demands are likely to fall on deaf ministerial ears on Friday as NGO rescue vessels come under increasing public scrutiny for their work.

A resolution passed by MEPs, also on Wednesday, demands NGOs cooperate with EU states and Frontex, when in fact they do cooperate but are ignored.

EUobserver witnessed Maltese authorities refuse numerous requests by the Ocean Viking to help coordinate a rescue involving disabled children within their own area of operations.

Sophie Scheytt, from the German rescue boat Sea-Watch, drew the same conclusions.

"They do not respond to our emails," she said of the Maltese maritime rescue co-ordination centres (MRCC).

"We have recordings, where MRCC Malta clearly states, we do not cooperate with NGOs," she said.

The charity boats are all facing renewed pressure from the Italian government under the far-right leadership of Giorgia Meloni, who wants the boats to disembark elsewhere.

And her idea to offshore asylum to African states is also gaining traction, following attempts by the Danish centre-left government to outsource claims to Rwanda.

"That is the kind of model that we should work on in the European Union," said Manfred Weber, who heads the centre-right EPP, the parliament's largest political group, in Strasbourg.

EU Commission suggests need for new charity rescue boat rules

EU Commission says it has no proposal and is not the competent authority, but that talks with the International Maritime Organisation are needed to create "specific framework and guidelines" for NGO boats rescuing people and bringing them to European shores.

Paris-Rome spat exposes EU 'solidarity' rift on asylum

The European Commission says solidarity on migration remains — despite Paris refusing to relocate some 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy under a French EU presidency-inspired proposal to distribute thousands of people across member states.

On board with SOS Méditerranée

Malta refuses to help rescue involving disabled children

The Libyan Coast Guard intercepted a wooden boat of 30 people some 10 nautical miles inside Malta's search and rescue zone. But then suddenly let them go, allowing the Ocean Viking to perform its first rescue since leaving Marseille.

EU Ombudsman warns of 'new normal' of crisis decision-making

Emily O'Reilly cited the post-pandemic recovery funds, the windfall taxes on energy companies, and the joint purchase of vaccines, as procedures which received limited scrutiny from the national parliaments — as a result of emergency decision-making powers that bypassed parliament.

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