Mediterranean migrant crisis


Sir, – Your editorial on February 1st, “Mediterranean migrant crisis: Fairness essential”, was right to highlight the need for reform of the current system for relocating people rescued in the Mediterranean to one that places a greater emphasis on the sharing of responsibility across EU member states.

As the editorial points out, attempts at reform have so far been unsuccessful, meaning that, under the “Dublin Regulation”, southern European states such as Italy and Greece are responsible for processing the asylum claims of people who reach their shores and for hosting people if their claims are successful.

In the absence of reform, Italy and Malta have resorted to refusing to allow boats carrying people rescued in the Mediterranean to disembark on their shores. This results in vulnerable people being left at sea, sometimes for up to a month, while European governments scramble to produce ad hoc, “ship by ship” solutions to where rescued people can be disembarked and which countries can host survivors and process their asylum applications. There is clearly an urgent need for Europe to agree on predictable and timely arrangements for disembarkation so that rescued people are no longer left adrift at sea waiting for leaders to reach a compromise.

This shameful and inhumane spectacle of boats carrying rescued people being refused access to ports has been a regular occurrence since last June when Italy first refused to allow the search-and-rescue ship Aquarius to disembark over 600 rescued people. In January, Germany announced that it would no longer support the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, with leaders blaming the decision on Italy’s refusal to allow rescued people to disembark at its ports. At the same time, NGOs conducting rescue operations have faced increased obstruction to their life-saving work. Commercial ships appear less willing to come to the aid of vessels in distress, with rescued people on occasion reporting that they had been ignored when they were clearly in need of assistance. If the principle of saving lives at sea continues to come under attack, then this will inevitably lead to yet more avoidable deaths in the Mediterranean.

At present, one of the few elements of migration policy that EU governments seem able to agree on is the forced return of rescued people to Libya, despite this being a direct violation of international law. Libya is a country where refugees and migrants are regularly detained in horrific conditions that violate their basic rights. Daily, MSF’s medical teams in Libya witness the health implications of these returns as refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are subject to arbitrary detention. Detention centres where migrants and refugees are held after being intercepted at sea are often overcrowded, and MSF medical teams frequently treat people suffering from malnutrition, hypothermia, severe diarrhoea, as well as psychological stress, anxiety, and depression. Meanwhile, Oxfam’s team on the ground in Italy support people arriving from Libya. They are often traumatised by their journeys and have harrowing testimonies of kidnapping, slavery, torture and sexual violence.

The EU is complicit in this suffering due to its funding, training and provision of equipment to the Libyan Coastguard. With EU backing, the coastguard intercepted 15,000 people at sea in 2018 and returned them to Libya.

Ahead of the European Justice and Home Affairs Council this week, 50 organisations signed joint letters to European ministers, including Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan, calling for agreements that preserve people’s fundamental rights, including their legal right to seek asylum. Specifically, the letters called for the council to support search and rescue operations, to adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements for rescued people and for an end to returns to Libya.

Political leaders are quick to espouse that the European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

It is high time for Europe to enact policies that match the rhetoric and end the avoidable suffering that their policies are causing in the Mediterranean. – Yours, etc,


Chief Executive,

Oxfam Ireland;



Irish Refugee

and Migrant Coalition;


Executive Director,

Amnesty International




Médecins Sans

Frontières (MSF) Ireland,

Upper Baggot Street,

Dublin 4.