EU leaders must act now: they can stop people dying in the Med
Last year, Italy ended Operation Mare Nostrum – its search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean.
This was a proactive and effective mission in international waters seeking out boats in distress and rescuing tens of thousands of desperate people at risk at sea.
Mare Nostrum was set up in response to more than 500 people drowning in one single day in the Lampedusa shipwrecks in October 2013. But other EU governments, including the UK, refused to support the Italian mission and called for it to end.
The UK government claimed that having a search and rescue patrol encouraged people to attempt the perilous journey.
This has been proved tragically wrong – more people have made the treacherous journey to Europe this year than in 2014 when there was a search and rescue mission in place.
War, poverty and persecution are what push people to take such this life-threatening risk, not the prospect of rescue.
A matter of life and death
In the absence of the Italian mission, the appalling loss of life in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas has this year risen to unprecedented levels. Already, more than 1,500 people are estimated to have lost their lives. And as the summer months approach, it is likely the numbers attempting to cross to Europe will increase.
Yesterday, David Cameron pledged the UK would contribute to search and rescue operations.
If this is a reversal of his earlier opposition, it is very welcome. But the concern remains that the UK and other EU leaders are yet to clearly acknowledge this is what is desperately needed.
Apart from Italy’s defunct operation, EU countries have so far only committed themselves to maintaining a sea policing operation within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast. This operation – called Triton – has no search and rescue mandate, a budget of only a third of the closed Italian mission and far fewer helicopters and vessels at its disposal.
Triton vessels are obliged to respond to boats in distress in the same way that any vessel on the sea has an obligation to provide assistance to those in need. But because its vessels patrol so much closer to shore than the Mare Nostrum did, they can reach far fewer incidents and far less quickly.
When Mare Nostrum ended, the risk of drowning doubled – even before the most recent tragedies, in which hundreds more people have died.
What can be done?
On the eve of an emergency summit in Brussels, we’re calling on European governments to take immediate and effective steps to end this ongoing catastrophe.
Everything points clearly to the need for the reintroduction of search and rescue as the Italians had been doing under Operation Mare Nostrum, but with full EU support. If the Prime Minister is now committed to this, it will be very welcome.
Such a decision can save hundreds or thousands of people from a frightening and lonely death at sea and an unmarked grave – whether on the shores of Europe or in the depths of the sea.
Written by Steve Symonds, Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director at Amnesty UK
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