Amnesty International has repeatedly raised the alarm that many lives will be lost in the Mediterranean Sea unless European Union (EU) member states step up to ensure a fully-fledged, joint search and rescue operation.
This comes on the eve of the launch of Frontex’s (the EU border agency) Operation Triton on 1 November – an operation that will define the fate of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum, and is set to steer the course for EU search and rescue commitments.
“No matter how it is dressed up, Triton is not a search and rescue operation,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland. “As the world faces the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, the EU and its member states must urgently and collectively ensure robust search and rescue capabilities, to plug the imminent gap in these lifesaving operations.”
Since the launch of Mare Nostrum in October 2013 (following the shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean which saw over 500 men, women, and children perish), Italy has almost single-handedly saved the lives of more than 155,000 people who risked drowning in Europe’s seas.
But as people continue to flee conflict and persecution, taking to the sea in search of safety and sanctuary, the call for a collective EU response to a shared responsibility to save lives off Europe’s shores has not been heeded.
Instead, an EU border operation is to be launched to tackle migratory flows in the Central Mediterranean.
“To date, there has been an appalling lack of a collective response to search and rescue needs by the EU member states,” added Colm O’Gorman. “Operation Triton is a clear testimony to EU member states’ continuing preoccupation with protecting borders over people.”
Frontex’s Triton has a clear border management remit at its core, meaning search and rescue and saving lives cannot and will not be its focus. Instead it will concentrate on patrolling coastlines and vetting asylum seekers once they are ashore.
In addition, compared to Mare Nostrum, it will not go as far into international waters where so many perish, operating closer to Europe’s shores.
Triton will also have a budget of 3 million Euro per month, compared to the 9 million Euro per month spent by Italy on Mare Nostrum.
And in a week when one of the largest of the EU member states, the United Kingdom, announced it would turn its back on any future search and rescue operations, serious questions remain about member states’ commitments to their obligations to save lives, and their credibility regarding human rights protection.
“Italy’s Mare Nostrum has saved thousands of lives, while the other member states idly watch on. They must now share that responsibility with them, and not hide behind an operation that is not fit for the very real search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Colm O’Gorman. “As long as war, poverty and persecution prevail, desperate people will continue to take terrible risks. The EU and its member states cannot and must not turn their backs on them, leaving them to drown at Europe’s doorstep.”
Amnesty International is also calling on the EU to increase safe and legal routes to Europe to ensure people are not forced to take dangerous sea crossings in the first place.