The number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean is rising. But with Europe closing its ports and halting humanitarian ships to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, activists fear the Mediterranean is becoming an overlooked tragedy.
Migrant landings on European shores have been declining sharply amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. However, the reason for this is not increased caution on the part of migrants hoping to reach the EU but rather a near-shutdown of the mechanisms that help them achieve their goal.
Countries like Italy and Malta have closed their ports since April to curb the effects of the pandemic, Greece suspended asylum cases amid a widespread lockdown and has only recently resumed processing applications again, and above all, as of early May, all rescue operations were ceased in the Mediterranean.
In the absence of humanitarian vessels and facing closed ports, 162 migrants remain stranded at sea on two tourist vessels.
Read more: The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on migrants
Departure numbers on the rise
International organizations and NGOs have described the picture as bleak. Vincent Cochetel, special envoy for the central Mediterranean with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says that "if there is no help at sea and countries drag their feet to rescue and allow people to disembark, we're going to end up with a fairly serious humanitarian situation."
Cochetel added that he estimates 179 people to have died in the sea since January, highlighting that the situation might be all the more dire, as departures from the Libyan coast had nearly quadrupled compared with the same period last year, with 6,629 attempts to reach Europe recorded between January and the end of April.
The number of departures from Tunisia had more than doubled, Cochetel also said.
Calm before the storm
The two rescue boats that were still in operation last month, when Malta and Italy decided to close their ports - the Alan Kurdi vessel run by the German NGO Sea-Eye, and Aita Mari chartered by the Spanish organization MayDayterraneo - have now been grounded by the Italian coastguard, citing "technical" problems.
Campaign groups have decried the move, calling it unjustified. Sea-Eye said on Twitter that lives were at risk because of the impounding of their vessel.
„We call for restrictions on the work of these rescuers to be lifted immediately. Such measures are clearly putting lives at risk.“ - @UNHumanRights— sea-eye (@seaeyeorg) May 10, 2020
Our rescue vessel #ALANKURDI remains blocked, as well as the #AitaMari.
European states must not prevent live saving operations. https://t.co/kAmiijuOby
"Whether or not there are (rescue) boats at sea, it has no influence on departures -this period of coronavirus has amply proven that," Cochetel said, adding that three quarters of migrants stuck in Libya were reported to have lost their jobs since the lockdown measures began, "which can lead to despair."
Sophie Beau, general director of the France-based SOS Mediterranee NGO, which runs the Ocean Viking rescue mission, questioned the motivation behind the grounding of the two vessels.
"Two boats one after the other, it really raises questions about why they were seized," she told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency. She stressed that her organization's Ocean Viking vessel would return to sea "as soon as possible" to save lives.
"It's very dramatic ... and counter to international maritime law, which requires us to help anyone in distress as quickly as possible," Beau said. "Now, as there are no witnesses, we don't know the extent of the possible tragedy taking place" in the Mediterranean, she added.
In a tweet, SOS Mediterranee referred to sea rescue as a "legal duty."
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has meanwhile also expressed concern over unnoticed migrant shipwrecks amid lockdown and border control measures introduced as part of the response to COVID-19.
The dangers of the Mediterranean
The IOM meanwhile repeated its warning that the central Mediterranean "remains the most dangerous maritime migration route on Earth."
"In the current context, risks that invisible shipwrecks are occurring out of sight of the international community have grown," it said.
Meanwhile Malta's Prime Minister Robert Abela announced last month that he was being investigated for his role in the death of at least five migrants who had tried to sail from Libya to Italy, when a Maltese patrol boat was alleged to have cut the cables of the migrant dinghy's motor.
Read more: Commissioner urges Malta to save lives at sea
No progress in Europe
Sophie Beau meanwhile also criticized the lack of progress in coordinating rescue efforts across the European Union. An agreement was drawn up in Malta at the end of 2019 for certain EU member states to share new arrivals, but has yet to be made law.
In a joint letter sent to the European Commission, the French, Italian, Spanish and German interior ministers renewed their call for the establishment of a "solidarity mechanism" for migrants rescued at sea.
"Currently, a handful of member states carry an excessive burden, which shows a lack of solidarity and risks making the whole system dysfunctional," they said in the letter.