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.

Sign our petition calling on David Cameron to prioritise saving lives at tomorrow’s meeting

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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7 comments

In the memory to all who have lost their lives


Hold on to your 5% of water, now you have decided I drown I have the remaining 95% to wonder.

I apologise for the intrusion, each sip you take will resonant my soul which you refused to save.

A solid ground without fear is what I sought, bribed, starved and walked, so you think you are better than me to be born on the right Soil? remember it was you who started this toil.

Hold on to your 5% of water, now you have decided I drown I have the remaining 95% to wonder.

I apologise for the disruption, a hundred years from now when you seek safety at sea do not call me rough because of your actions my spirit is tough.

I apologies for the inconvenience, I rain on you my tears to recycle the memory of the choices you have made, for a second we had the same sensation of numbness;

mine from cold water filling my every limb and yours from the callous wimp that follows your every dream.

Hold onto your 5% of water
© 2015 Hodan Noor

hodannoor47_1 3 years ago

I am all for helping out refugees and outcasts. Aren't we all outcasts in one way or another. But a main challenge is getting people to care. Although the UK economy seems to be recovering, there are still lots of people out there without jobs, or are employed, but not in decent jobs.

We need to concentrate on improving the quality of life of people in the UK. Once people are happier, they will be more willing to help.

AdeleJustice 3 years ago

It is very easy to shout loudly about the need to save these people from drowning, but what then? Where do they live? Who supports them? Who gives them jobs? How do we stop thousands more from coming? Yes, it is a desperately sad situation but simply saying Save Them is not the solution and I have not seen any Amnesty International suggestions on how to cope with the consequences of saving them in either the short term or the long term. Be realistic, Europe simple can't cope with this huge number of refugees - you have to get to the root of the problem back in their own countries and do far me to deter these people from fleeing. And even more to stop the people traffickers who are large contributors to the problem. I am not being inhumane, I am being realistic.

giovanna.margate 3 years ago

I can not believe these comments - we are human beings first! The only difference between them and you is that you were lucky enough to be born in a developed country. These people are in desperate need.
no one has ever helped us when we are in need?? Lucajohnson you need to do your homework!

anna.aiken2 3 years ago

Lucajohnson - I have deleted your comments on this post as they contained swearwords, violating our comment guidelines https://www.amnesty.org.uk/community-rules
Please feel free to resubmit or post another comment without profanity.

AnnaStaff 3 years ago

Still, if something happened here and knowing the way this world is going with basically everything the only countries to help would be the USA, China, Japan, Australia etc but places like Syria no no no they would not help, countries in North africa won't help. And also we are quite far away from the Mediterranean. Australia tell them to go back and that's a fact, stopping them before the mainland it's always Britains fault, 'not doing enough' we can carry on giving aid billions at a time and very frequently.

Kim Jong un 3 years ago

Sorry by the way but not the best way to get the point across.

Kim Jong un 3 years ago