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Europe needs to act collectively and urgently to save lives at sea

26th April 2015, 16:15:54 UTC

Amnesty International publishes ‘Blueprint for Action’ to end refugee and migrant deaths in the Mediterranean

On the eve of an emergency summit in Brussels, Amnesty International today published a Blueprint for Action calling on European governments to take immediate and effective steps to end the ongoing crisis that has seen thousands die in the Mediterranean.

The briefing, Europe’s sinking shame: The failure to save refugees and migrants at sea, documents testimonies of shipwreck survivors and senior officers in the Italian navy and coast guard. It details the limitations of current search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and proposes recommendations to address these challenges. The Blueprint shows that the end of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue programme can be linked to an increase in deaths at sea, details where these refugees and migrants come from and how Europe has left this group with few alternatives that they must risk their lives.

If figures from the latest incidents are confirmed, as many as 1,700 people will have perished this year. 100 times more than in the same period in 2014. The myth that Mare Nostrum acted as a ‘pull factor’ is also dispelled as more refugees and migrants are attempting these dangerous crossings. This year has seen record numbers trying to cross Europe by sea with 24,000 arriving in Italy so far.

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland said: “It is quite clear that ending Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation has cost lives and will continue to do so unless Europe takes urgent action. Operation Triton, its replacement has neither the mandate nor resources so deal with the scale of the crisis. At the very least, and as a matter of the utmost urgency, the European Union can fund or equip the Italian and Maltese navies and coast guards so there is a search-and-rescue operation in the middle Mediterranean.”

In 2014, when Mare Nostrum was operational Italian authorities rescued over 166,000 people and the death-rate among those making the crossing was 1 in 50. In the first three and a half months of 2014, this figure was 1 in 23. It is clear that Operation Triton, Mare Nostrum’s replacement has neither the mandate nor the resources to save lives at sea.

Drowning by numbers

On 18 April 2015 estimates suggest that more than 800 migrants and refugees drowned during an attempted rescue by a merchant ship. Their boat capsized as those on board surged to one side, according to the coast guard.

This echoes the testimonies of survivors of other tragedies in Amnesty International’s briefing. Mohammad, a 25-year-old Palestinian man from Lebanon described how, on 4 March 2015, the boat he was on with 150 people aboard capsized when a large tug boat approached to assist them. “They threw a rope ladder…Many tried to get on it and the boat capsized …I fell into the water…Immirdan, a Syrian woman died with her one-year old son.”

On 8 February 2015 following a distress call, Italian coast guards braved high seas and freezing temperatures to rescue 105 people from an overcrowded dinghy. Their boat was part of a group of four that had set off from Libya the day before and got into trouble. A total of more than 330 refugees and migrants died on that day. Apart from two commercial vessels in the area, only the Italian coast guard was available to provide assistance. But facilities on the two uncovered patrol boats were insufficient to provide warmth and shelter to the rescued and 29 of them died of hypothermia on board. Salvatore Caputo, a nurse on board one of the coast guard vessels, told Amnesty International: “To keep them warm we made them rotate inside the cabin, but it was all very difficult…I felt so enraged: saving them and then seeing them die like that.”

Ready to act

Colm O’Gorman said, “Our report shows that ending Mare Nostrum has not led to a drop in the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean but it can be reasonably linked to an increase in the numbers of those dying at sea. “The Italian navy reported to Amnesty International that it stands ready and can re-start a humanitarian operation in 48-72 hours. But they cannot do it alone. “This week we have seen EU Ministers acknowledge the problem which is a positive change from the previous policy of denial and inaction. Tomorrow’s emergency summit must detail concrete steps – the full scope of operations, the resources and assets to be made available and a clear timeframe for delivery.

“A theory developed that doing nothing would halt the flow of people. This has been shown to be a fallacy. Ireland and every EU member state must play its part to ensure the EU responds to this escalating crisis. There are no longer any excuses.”

John Dalhusien, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia said, “Europe’s negligence in failing to save thousands of migrants and refugees who run into peril in the Mediterranean as akin to firefighters refusing to save people jumping from a towering inferno. European leaders gathering in Brussels have an historic opportunity to end this spiralling tragedy. They can finally take action.”