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Mediterranean refugee and migrant crisis: 50-fold increase in deaths amid European inaction

The ongoing negligence by European governments of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean has contributed to a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths since the beginning of 2015 compared with last year, Amnesty International said today.

As many as 400 migrants are feared to have died off the coast of Libya in recent days. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) today said it was "deeply shocked" that this latest tragedy could bring the death toll to almost 900 people since 1 January, compared to 17 during the same period in 2014.

At the end of last year, Italy closed its extensive "Mare Nostrum" search-and-rescue operation, which had saved thousands of lives. It was replaced by the much smaller EU-led "Triton", which has no mandate to conduct extensive search-and-rescue operations, effectively leaving a less well-resourced Italian coast guard as the only proactive search-and-rescue response to this growing crisis. EU governments, including the UK, refused to offer financial or practical support to a replacement search-and-rescue operation, saying the prospect of being rescued from the sea was a "pull factor" for refugees and migrants.

All indications point to a continued rise in the number of migrants and refugees making this trip as the weather improves, violence and persecution continue in countries like Syria and Eritrea, and instability persists in Libya, the launching point for the majority of the people-smuggling voyages across the Mediterranean.

Amnesty International UK’s Director Kate Allen said:

“The shocking number of people who have drowned or been rescued in the last few days shows the argument of the UK and other governments, that search-and-rescue encourages people to make the journey, for what it is - complete nonsense. The vague prospect of rescue has never been the incentive. War, poverty and persecution are what make desperate people take terrible risks.

“How many more will have to drown before political leaders see fit to act? The UK has been a vocal advocate for the current failed European position, which leaves people to drown who can and should be saved. This urgently needs to change.

“EU leaders must throw their full weight behind a robust and concerted humanitarian operation in the Mediterranean. The Italians should not be expected to deal with this crisis alone. In the run up to the UK general election, now is the time for all UK political parties to commit to supporting effective EU-led search-and-rescue operation that will save thousands of lives.”

In the latest string of tragedies, the Italian coastguard told Amnesty it had rescued a total of almost 10,000 people when it responded to dozens of separate SOS calls since Saturday 11 April. On Sunday 12 April, the Italian coast guard retrieved nine corpses from one wooden boat which had capsized, and search efforts are ongoing as hundreds more from that boat are feared missing.

As in other recent search-and-rescue operations, the Italian coastguard had to rely on ad hoc assistance from a combination of the European Union’s “Triton” border-control operation and any nearby merchant vessels.

On 28 April, Amnesty will launch a new report which offers an in-depth analysis of the current crisis and includes direct testimonies of survivors of shipwrecks during the first three months of 2015. It details how current search-and-rescue operations are a far cry from what is needed to address the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean.

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