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21st Feb 2024

Mass drowning prompts talk of EU search-and-rescue operation

  • Some 700 people are feared dead in the latest drowning (Photo: Frontex)

The EU is mulling options to launch a fully-fledged search and rescue operation following the reported drowning of some 700 EU-bound migrants over the weekend.

Speaking on the behalf of Latvia’s EU presidency, interior minister Rihards Kozlovskis on Monday (20 April) said “options should be explored for setting up a full-fledged search and rescue operation of the EU”.

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But Kozlovskis’ call for a EU-wide rescue mission is likely to meet resistance from national governments like the UK, which insist aid efforts are a pull factor for more people to make the perilous journey.

The deaths and boating tragedies have historically been met with emotional statements from the EU and most governments but little in terms of action.

“How many more people will have to drown until we finally act in Europe?” said European parliament president Martin Schulz in a statement.

William Lacy Swing, who heads the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said the “EU and the world's powers can no longer sit on the sidelines watching while tragedy unfolds in slow motion".

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others have made similar calls.

The IOM chief said some 1,500 people have died since the start of the year.

Survivors from the latest Mediterranean shipwreck said smugglers had locked hundreds of people inside the hold of the boat, which capsized on Saturday some 60 km off the Libyan coast.

One survivor said as many as 950 may have been onboard. Only 28 people have so far been rescued and 24 bodies recovered.

The latest drownings follow another incident last week that saw around 400 people die.

Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi on Sunday called for more EU action to crack down on human traffickers. Around 90 percent of migrants disembark from war-torn Libya.

His statements were backed by the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini after the two met to discuss the latest shipwreck. Mogherini said only European policies on migration can prevent more tragedies from happening.

The weekend tragedy will be discussed by EU ministers of foreign affairs and interior ministers on Monday.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos cancelled a visit to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila to take part in the meeting.

Italy’s coastguard and other boats have rescued around 13,000 in the past seven days. Over 31,000 people have arrived in Italy this year with many more expected to make the journey over the summer months.

Kozlovskis also appealed for more money for the EU’s border agency Frontex. The Warsaw-based agency is spearheading the under-equipped Triton mission in the Mediterranean.

Triton is seen by critics as a piecemeal EU response to the issue.

Meant to do border surveillance, Triton can only operate within Italian coastal waters but most rescue missions take place 40 nautical miles off Libya. Frontex says the mission has helped rescue around 7,000 people.

Triton followed Italy’s now defunct Mare Nostrum operation, which by comparison saved over 150,000 people over a 12-month period.

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