UN points to EU responsibility for Mediterranean migrant deaths

The EU has not only cut back on its own official search and rescue operations but individual governments have prevented humanitarian agencies from rescuing migrants in distress.
Wednesday 26/05/2021
A file picture shows a patrol boat of the Italian Coast Guards (Guardia Costiera) transporting migrants towards the port of Palermo, Sicily. (AFP)
A file picture shows a patrol boat of the Italian Coast Guards (Guardia Costiera) transporting migrants towards the port of Palermo, Sicily. (AFP)

GENEVA--The European Union is partly to blame for deaths of migrants taking boats across the Mediterranean due to unanswered distress calls, obstruction of humanitarian rescue efforts and so-called “pushbacks” to Libya, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

The UN urged Libya and the EU to overhaul their search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, saying current practices robbed migrants of their lives, rights and dignity.

A UN Human Rights Office report on search and rescue operations and the protection of migrants in the central Mediterranean found that policies and practices “fail to prioritise the lives, safety and human rights of people attempting to cross from Africa to Europe.

The report, released Wednesday, said evidence suggested that the lack of human rights protections was “not a tragic anomaly, but rather a consequence of concrete policy decisions and practices by the Libyan authorities, the European Union member states and institutions and other actors”.

Thousands of refugees and migrants including many from Africa undertake long, dangerous journeys via Libya to Europe each year, often embarking on small, inflatable boats in search of a better life.

Death rates are rising and so far this year at least 632 people have died on that route, the UN rights office said in a 37-page report entitled “Lethal Disregard”, calling this a “human tragedy on a massive scale”.

The report found that the lack of migrant protection “is not a tragic anomaly, but rather a consequence of concrete policy decisions and practices by the Libyan authorities, European Union member states and institutions, and other actors…”

A woman walks past photographs of a dead would-be migrants on Barcelona’s Bogatell beach, during a protest action by human rights organisations. (AFP)
A woman walks past photographs of a dead would-be migrants on Barcelona’s Bogatell beach, during a protest action by human rights organisations.(AFP)

The EU has not only cut back on its own official search and rescue operations but individual governments have prevented humanitarian agencies from rescuing migrants in distress, by impounding their vessels and targeting individuals with administrative and criminal proceedings, the report said.

There have also been “pushbacks at sea” where migrant vessels have been returned from international waters to Libya with the help of European helicopters, migrants told the UN rights office.

The report, covering the period from January 2019 to December 2020 and based on interviews with 80 migrants, also said some interceptions by Libyan authorities had endangered migrants. Some boats were rammed or shot at, causing them to capsize or migrants to jump overboard. Often, migrants face exploitation and abuse back in Libya.

Commenting on the report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for urgent reforms of search and rescue policies and practices in Libya as well as the EU and its member states to ensure compliance with international law.

“The real tragedy is that so much of the suffering and death along the central Mediterranean route is preventable,” she said.

“No-one should feel compelled to risk their lives or those of their families on unseaworthy boats in search of safety and dignity,” said Bachelet.

“But the answer cannot be simply preventing departures from Libya or making the journeys more desperate and dangerous.

“Until there are sufficient safe, accessible and regular migration channels, people will continue to try to cross the central Mediterranean, no matter what the dangers or consequences.”