The European Union has been urged by Human Rights Watch to “act immediately” to prevent further migrant deaths at sea. The demand comes as EU leaders were holding an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday to find ways to stem the number of people risking their lives.
The summit comes in the wake of the latest tragedy involving migrant deaths.
More than 800 migrants and asylum seekers were feared dead in a single shipwreck in the Mediterranean north of Libya on April 19 bringing the estimated death toll to over 1,000 in one week.
Ahead of the summit, Judith Sunderland, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said, “The EU is standing by with arms crossed while hundreds die off its shores.These deaths might well have been prevented if the EU had launched a genuine search-and-rescue effort.”
Human Rights Watch said that EU ministers should arrive at the summit prepared to commit the financial, technical, and political resources needed for a multi-country humanitarian effort to save lives at sea.
After the October 2013 tragedy in which more than 360 people died off the coast of Lampedusa,Italy launched Mare Nostrum – a massive humanitarian naval operation in the Mediterranean credited with saving tens of thousands of lives.
The EU’s external borders agency, Frontex, implemented Operation Triton, with far fewer vessels, one-third of the budget, and a smaller geographic scope. The primary mandate of Frontex is border enforcement, not search and rescue.
The European Commission recently said the only way to deal with boat migration is to address root causes, but said nothing about search and rescue.
Since many people are fleeing countries where their lives and rights are at risk, the EU’s immediate priority should be saving lives at sea and respecting its international legal obligation not to send migrants back to places where they face threats to life or freedom, Human Rights Watch said.
Meanwhile, the Jesuit Refugee Service said Europe’s “first priority” must be to implement a full-scale search and rescue operation.
It says that “saving human life must come first.”
JRS calls on the summit to respond to this ongoing tragedy with a concrete action plan prioritising human dignity and justice.
“Now is a moment for political courage. We urge European leaders to set aside their differences, avoiding the blame game, and to work together constructively to find solutions to this crisis,” said Jean-Marie Carrière SJ, JRS Europe Director.
“The priority has to be to save lives: that means a large scale search and rescue mission, and stopping those who force migrants onto unseaworthy boats. At the same time, there must also be safe and legal ways to find international protection in Europe.”
“All 28 EU member states have a responsibility to work together to save lives and to protect human life and dignity. Europe must prove that as well as talk, it can also really act to defend human rights.”
By Martin Banks