For those trying to cross the Mediterranean the chance of dying  is now much greater
For those trying to cross the Mediterranean the chance of dying is now much greater

A staggering proportion of those who have tried to cross the Mediterranean in the past few months have lost their lives. In June alone, one person died for every seven who attempted the journey. The increased rate coincides with crackdowns by Malta and Italy on private rescue operations.

The numbers alone tell a tragic story: This June, at least 629 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, while 3,136 were rescued.

In comparison, in June 2017, 418 died, but 23,524 were rescued.

Translated into words, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean has dropped sharply in the past two years, but the proportion of people dying at sea has reached an all-time high.

Summer is always a time of relatively high activity for people smugglers in the region who take advantage of warmer weather conditions to launch more boats.

But this alone cannot explain such a "dramatic and exceptional" rate of death, according to Rome-based UNHCR spokesperson Carlotte Sami.

International Organization for Migration Deaths at sea 2018

Search and rescue curbed

The increase in the death rate of migrants crossing the Mediterranean coincides with crackdowns launched by Italy and Malta against private boats conducting search and rescue operations in the region.

In January to April this year, non-government organizations carried out about 40 percent of sea rescue operations for those disembarked in Italy, the UNHCR says.

But in recent weeks, their ability to operate has been greatly restricted through limitations on their movements and the threat of potential legal action. The Italian government is refusing to let NGO vessels dock at Italian ports, while Malta has suspended permission to the vessels to stop in its harbors.

A UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Charlie Yaxley, says unless all vessels, including NGOs and commercial ships, are free to rescue and disembark migrants, shipmasters may think twice or delay in responding to distress calls for fear of not being allowed to disembark for days on end. "Then we may lose vital minutes which are incredibly important when it comes to these rescue operations. Lives depend on it," Yaxley says.

Libyan coastguard poorly equipped

With NGOs prevented from conducting search and rescue operations, Libya's coastguard is struggling to fill the gap.

In June, the country informed the International Maritime Organization that it was ready to fulfill all obligations within its own maritime search and rescue zone. Italy had previously been responsible for the entire maritime area between its coast and Libya's shoreline. 

Italian authorities have supplied Libya with extra vessels and training, and the EU has pledged to provide at least €280 million in extra funding for the Libyan coastguard over the coming years.

Riccardo Gatti, captain of the Spanish NGO rescue ship The Astral, says Libyan vessels lack basic rescue equipment, including life jackets. He has also accused Libyan authorities of failing to respond to distress calls quickly enough and risking the lives of those in need. 

"For months now, (the Libyan Coast Guard) has been presented as an official body, formal, very well-trained and legal, ... All of this is theater," the European Council on Refugees and Exiles quotes Gatti as saying.

Migrants intercepted by the Libyan coast guard are return to the port of Tripoli

The UN and human rights organizations have also expressed concern about migrants being returned to Libya, where they face torture, rape, and other rights violations.

Safe pathways

To prevent more deaths at sea, the UN and the International Organization for Migration say, the guidelines on search and rescue must be clear and consistent. 

They also say steps have to be taken in north Africa to prevent people from using people smugglers to get to Europe.

In Libyan detention centers, 500 people identified by the UN as eligible for asylum or some other form of protection are waiting for offers from European or other countries to take them directly out of Libya. 4,000 others who have been accepted for relocation have been taken to a transit center in Niger and are also waiting for countries to fulfill their promises to take them, AP reports.

'First steps' accomplished, now for 'disembarkation mechanism'

The IOM and the UNHCR welcomed the outcome of the summit of European leaders two weeks ago as a positive first move towards a common approach to asylum.

They propose that an important next step should be cooperating on a so-called "disembarkation mechanism," a system for disembarking migrants rescued at sea and taking them to reception centers where they would be cared for and registered with UNHCR and IOM support.

However, how such a disembarkation mechanism would work is far from clear. In any event, it would need a level of cooperation on asylum policy not yet seen among EU states.


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