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Amnesty writes to Theresa May over 'unacceptable' scale of loss of life in Mediterranean

It is a moral disgrace that thousands of people have drowned trying to get to the safety of Europe this summer, Amnesty International said today as it published a new report.

Amnesty’s report, Lives adrift: Refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean, is published a year on from the Lampedusa shipwrecks, which claimed more than 500 lives. It criticises the woeful response from European countries to the influx of refugees and migrants on boats, many of whom drown.

More than 2,500 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of this year. The actual number is likely to be much higher, with a dramatic increase in the loss of life over the recent summer months when more people attempt the perilous journey.

Amnesty said that more search and rescue vessels are needed in the central Mediterranean, with the clear mandate of saving lives in the high seas. More resources adequate to the task, provided by the EU and its member states, are vital, the organisation said.

The report commends the Italian navy’s ‘Operation Mare Nostrum’, launched in direct response to the Lampedusa tragedy. Italy has deployed a significant part of its navy for search and rescue operations in the Central Mediterranean. Amnesty researchers joined one of the vessels on a search and rescue trip to monitor the success of the programme.

However, even Italy’s best efforts have been insufficient to prevent the dramatic loss of life that occurred over the summer months of 2014 and Italy has recently indicated that the operation is not sustainable in the long run.

The report calls for more safe and legal routes to Europe for people fleeing conflict and persecution. Those routes could be achieved through resettlement, humanitarian admission programmes and facilitation of family reunification.

The current conflict in Syria has caused the worst humanitarian crisis this century and a large number of the refugees trying to get to Europe by boat are Syrians. Amnesty is calling the UK government to urgently increase the number of the vulnerable Syrian refugees it resettles.

Despite a commitment in January, only 75 have so far been resettled in the UK. There are now more than 3 million refugees known to have fled Syria.

By contrast to the UK, Germany has pledged to admit 20,000 Syrian refugees.

Jan Shaw, Amnesty UK’s Refugee Programme Director, said:

“It is a moral disgrace that boatloads of people drown trying to get to the safety of Europe.

“The scale of the loss of life we have seen this summer is completely unacceptable.

“More must be done to save lives, and rescue programmes must be adequately funded by the EU. History will judge our failure as unforgivable.

“Without safe routes being provided through resettlement programmes, despairing people will continue to face the mortal dangers of setting sail in unseaworthy boats, exploited by traffickers and abandoned by governments.”

One Syrian man and his pregnant wife paid £2,150 to a people smuggler to travel in a cracked and overcrowded boat.

Another Syrian man, Mohammed, a 22-year old from Damascus, told Amnesty: “When we left Libya, we were 400 people with maybe 100 more children. We had to go on rowing boats to reach the bigger boat. At first I could not see the big boat, but when I saw it, it was bad. I did not want to board it, but the smuggler threatened me with a firearm. It took two hours to board everybody. At about 2am I heard gunfire. [A boat with armed men] placed themselves in front of our boat. They kept trying to stop the boat for about four hours. They shot from many sides. When it dawned, they left. The damaged boat was swaying. We threw all our bags in the sea, including the life jackets – we wanted to live.”

The report makes the case for a review of the Dublin regulations governing the processing of asylum applications in the EU. The EU Dublin Regulation, where EU member state of first arrival is responsible for processing the asylum claims of most applicants, places an unfair strain on countries involved in the rescue operations as they carry the longer term responsibility of meeting their needs.

The lack of responsibility sharing among EU countries is discouraging southern European states, particularly Malta, from taking refugees and migrants to their ports. Operation Mare Nostrum has temporarily papered over this problem, but should it come to an end without an adequate replacement, delays and disputes over search and rescue obligations will place lives at risk Amnesty warned.

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