Mourners gathered in Lampedusa on Tuesday to mark the 10th anniversary of a devastating shipwreck, when at least 368 people died off the coast of Italy, leading to outcry across Europe and pledges to bring in adequate life-saving efforts. Eight days after the first disaster, at least 268 more people drowned in a second incident.
In the aftermath, Italy’s search-and-rescue operation Mare Nostrum was launched, but it lasted just a year. The limited European sea patrols which replaced it ended in 2019.
Since 2014, more than 28,100 people have died or gone missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe – UN figures that observers say could be a large underestimate. Of these, more than 22,340 have been on the Central Mediterranean – a route between Libya or Tunisia and Italy or Malta. More people are dying in the desert or detention in North Africa, while trying to reach the shore.
This year is shaping up to be the deadliest in the Mediterranean since 2017 – with 2,357 deaths or disappearances recorded so far.
In June, more than 600 people are thought to have drowned in a single disaster off Pylos in Greece.
“Rarely does a week pass without stories from across the globe of tragedies and dramatic incidents, whether at sea or on land routes. They have become appallingly normalised,” read a joint statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, and the head of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration, Amy Pope, on Tuesday. “These tragedies are preventable and the need to provide a meaningful response cannot be put off any longer. Saving lives is not an option. It is a legal obligation. It is a moral imperative.”
The statement said the two officials “urge further efforts to strengthen co-operation in co-ordinated search-and-rescue operations; ensure that migrants and refugees receive lifesaving assistance; end the criminalisation, obstruction or deterrence of those providing humanitarian assistance; establish effective regular pathways that meet the needs and uphold the human rights of all concerned; counter trafficking and exploitation; and collect data to prevent and resolve cases of missing migrants and refugees and make them publicly available”.
In July, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for a “comprehensive” joint EU search-and-rescue mission. It noted that international law requires states to offer assistance “to any person in distress at sea” and to bring them to a place of safety.
“EU politicians continue to blame smugglers for the mass dying at sea while it is those who build and ‘protect’ borders who are responsible for the never-ending suffering,” tweeted Alarm Phone, an organisation that fields distress calls from people trying to cross the Mediterranean, on Tuesday. “In the absence of safe corridors, people will continue to risk their lives at sea. Today, on October 3rd, 2023, we are trying to assist 44 people in distress at sea who have been denied rescue for days.”
During a visit to Marseilles last month, Pope Francis said migration was “a reality of our times” and called for more legal routes to be opened.