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EU Justice & Home Affairs Council: Europe must act to save lives at sea

9th October 2014, 15:36:49 UTC

As European Union (EU) member states’ Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Ministers gather in Luxembourg for a two day meeting, Amnesty International urges them to take forward a comprehensive and collective EU response to search and rescue needs in the Central Mediterranean, to urgently save lives.

“As the EU builds its walls higher and higher, migrants and refugees are increasingly taking to the Mediterranean waters in a desperate bid to reach safety and sanctuary in Europe. Tragically they are increasingly paying the highest cost, losing their lives at sea,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

One year on from the 2013 October shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean Sea when over 500 people died, the EU’s collective response to saving lives in these waters has been little more than shameful. Italy is the only EU country to have responded with Operation Mare Nostrum, deploying a significant part of its navy for search and rescue operations.

However, even Italy’s best efforts have not been enough to prevent the dramatic loss of life this year, with indications that the country cannot sustain the operation long-term.

In 2014 so far over 165,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean. Tragically, more than 3000 people are now estimated to have died at sea; although the real numbers are difficult to account for. Almost half the people arriving are from war-torn Syria and repressive Eritrea, with an increasing number of women and children.

The European Commission’s August announcement to launch a new Frontex operation, Operation Triton, to support Italy’s efforts was widely seen as the first sign of an EU-wide wake-up call and collective response to the ongoing tragic events in the Central Mediterranean.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Operation Triton is unlikely to meet the real search and rescue needs to save lives.

“One has to question how far reaching the search and rescue remit of an operation with a border surveillance mandate at its core can and will be,” said Colm O’Gorman. “For the EU to show it is truly serious about saving lives, JHA ministers must ensure collective EU action focussed on search and rescue, with sufficient funding and capabilities covering routes taken by refugee and migrants’ boats.”

Operation Triton, to be launched in November under Frontex, the EU agency for monitoring borders, would have to at a minimum match Operation Mare Nostrum in terms of mandate, capabilities and financing.

As it stands, Frontex has budgeted in the region of Euro 3 million per month for the operation, compared to Euro 9 million that Italy is spending on Operation Mare Nostrum on a monthly basis.

In order to save lives, Operation Triton would also have to, as under Operation Mare Nostrum, operate in international waters and cover the entire Italian and Maltese search zones.

Amnesty International is also urging the JHA ministers to take a long-term and holistic approach to managing migratory flows to Europe since the sharp rise in people crossing the Mediterranean is not only due to increased instability in the Middle East, wider conflicts, and the deteriorating situation in Libya.

“Quite simply, people are being forced to board rickety and dangerous vessels given the EU’s security-based response to migration. This includes the progressive sealing of the EU’s land borders, and the absence of safe and legal routes for refugees to reach the EU.” said Colm O’Gorman.

Safe and legal routes to Europe could include an increase in resettlement quotas, wider access to humanitarian visas, and facilitating family reunification.

Amnesty International is also urging EU member states to ensure responsibility-sharing for people rescued and disembarked, limiting the need for irregular secondary movements within the EU.

This could be achieved by promoting the use of the EU’s Dublin Regulation (where the EU member state of first arrival is responsible for processing asylum claims) to allow people rescued and disembarked to travel to EU members states beyond the country of entry.

“This week’s JHA Council will be a litmus test of the EU and its member states’ commitments and obligations under international law to save lives at sea,” said Colm O’Gorman. “The EU’s focus must first and foremost be on ensuring comprehensive and collective search and rescue measures. These must effectively and immediately protect and save migrants and refugees in the world’s most dangerous sea route”.