Amnesty calls for European response to Mediterranean ‘boat people’ crisis

Since last Saturday, 10,000 people have landed off the coast of southern Italy

African migrants after they were rescued from the sea off the coast of Libya, at a centre for illegal migrants in Misrata, Libya. Photograph: EPA/STR

African migrants after they were rescued from the sea off the coast of Libya, at a centre for illegal migrants in Misrata, Libya. Photograph: EPA/STR


As southern Italy braced itself for the arrival of more migrant “boat people”, Amnesty International yesterday berated European governments for their “ongoing negligence” to a “humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean that has contributed to a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths since the beginning of 2015”.

In a statement issued just three days after 400 people are believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya, Amnesty pointed out that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) believes that as many as 900 people have died in the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year, compared to 17 in the same period in 2014.

Amnesty is convinced current search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean are inadequate: “How many more people have to die before European governments acknowledge that relying on a patchwork quilt of resources for search-and-rescue operations is not enough?” said Gauri Van Gulik, deputy Europe and Central Asia programme director at Amnesty International.

“Thousands of desperate migrants and refugees continue to make the world’s most dangerous sea crossing, and hundreds have already died this year, a massive increase over the same period in 2014.”

‘Pull factor’

Since last Saturday, approximately 10,000 people – from strife-torn Syria, Eritrea and Somalia and from various North African countries – have landed off the coast of southern Italy. With the onset of warm weather, UN observers expect that arrival rate to further increase.

Inevitably, not only the milder weather but also the current instability in Libya has made it much easier for human traffickers to go about their business. According to the Italian government, the vast majority of the 170,000 clandestine migrants who reached Italy last year had departed from Libya.

Even if the death toll has increased dramatically this year, the numbers of people attempting the Mediterranean crossing are only slightly higher.

When Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation was closed last autumn, many experts argued that its replacement, the EU’s Triton border control operation Frontex, would prove much less effective. Essentially, Frontex has only a third of Mare Nostrum’s operational capacity whilst its range of action is limited to a 48km zone around Italy’s coastal waters unlike the huge areas covered by Mare Nostrum. The higher death toll would seem to confirm those dire predictions.

“Europe has scaled back search-and-rescue capacity based on the flawed argument that such operations were acting as a ‘pull factor’, attracting more migrants. But the reality in the Mediterranean is exposing that fallacy, since the numbers of desperate people seeking to make it to Europe are only going up,” said Van Gulik.

“Leaders in London, Paris, Berlin and other European capitals must admit that the current strategy isn’t working and throw their full weight behind a robust and concerted humanitarian operation in the Mediterranean, with at least the same resources as the Italian Mare Nostrum operation.”

In the meantime, local authorities all over Italy have indicated that they have few, if any, resources with which to accommodate a new wave of migrants.

As it is, many of the 10,000 who have arrived in the last few days are being cared for by the Catholic Church charity, Caritas.

Meanwhile, Northern League leader Matteo Salvini has this week promoted a bitterly anti-immigrant protest, promising that the League will “occupy” any hotel, hostel, school or other institutional building set aside for the immigrants, saying:

“These places should first of all be made available to Italians in difficulty”.