JHA ministers must brave the waters and commit to a meaningful search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean

Italian coast guard vessels, Lampedusa. Credit: Amnesty International



(Brussels, 12 March 2015) European Union (EU) governments should hang their heads in shame at the ongoing reluctance of many to ensure a collective and concerted search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, said Amnesty International. The human rights organisation slammed EU countries’ overall failure so far to respond to migratory flows to Europe in a meaningful manner that would protect rights and lives on the occasion of the EU JHA ministers’ meeting in Brussels on 12 and 13 March; and in advance of 15 March, the four year anniversary of the start of the crisis in Syria. 

“The humanitarian crisis that launched Mare Nostrum, that saved over 170,000 lives, has not gone away. Nor, does it seem, has the political reluctance of too many European countries to commit to resourcing a necessary, robust and dedicated search and rescue operation despite the ongoing loss of life in the deadly Mediterranean waters,” said Iverna McGowan, acting director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office. “It’s basic but alarming mathematics – as the number of people taking this deadly sea route goes up, and the resources put into search and rescue go down, more people are dying” .

Many EU member states put political pressure on Italy to end its search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, due to what they saw as its ‘pull factor’ role for migrants and refugees to Europe. This was done without identifying or implementing a workable replacement. Operation Triton, governed by the EU’s border surveillance agency Frontex, was hailed as a replacement by many in the EU. However, unlike Mare Nostrum, it does not have a search and rescue mandate, has considerably less funding, and doesn’t patrol the international waters where most recent shipwrecks have occured.

“With sea arrivals up by 60% in January 2015 compared to the same month last year, we can expect that more desperate and vulnerable people will attempt to reach safety and sanctuary in Europe via the Mediterranean. As such it’s clear that the ‘push factors’ causing people to embark on boats must be responded to. These include ongoing conflict in Syria, turmoil and persecution in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, and the gradual sealing of Europe’s land borders,” said Iverna McGowan.

Amnesty International is urging Europe’s Justice & Home Affairs ministers to brave the waters, and commit to a meaningful search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean at the Council. This means one that at a minimum matches Mare Nostrum in terms of mandate, resources and scope.  Ministers must, as highlighted in the European Commission’s announcement on the European Agenda for Migration, also ensure safe and legal routes to Europe, including increased resettlement for refugees. The lack of these routes is also pushing people towards deadly sea crossings.

The Syria question and Europe’s ‘answer’

The creation of safe and legal routes and a search and rescue operation are urgently needed. This JHA Council meeting is particularly pertinent given it falls ahead of the 15 March anniversary of the start of the conflict in Syria. The conflict in Syria is one of the main crises forcing people to flee their homes to Europe, and beyond. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has identified around 380,000 refugees as being in need of urgent resettlement globally. They include torture and rape survivors, and sick or unaccompanied children. Yet, only a tiny fraction of these vulnerable refugees have been resettled.

As of 11 February 2015, only 79,778 resettlement and other admission places have been offered for Syrian refugees globally; this is since the start of the Syria crisis. This equates to a mere 2 per cent of the total population of Syrian refugees in the region, notably in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. Excluding Germany, which has pledged 30,000 humanitarian admission and individual sponsorship places, and Sweden, which has pledged 2,700 resettlement places, the remaining 26 EU countries have pledged in the region of a mere 5,000 resettlement places.

With virtually no legal routes available to get to Europe, and certain member states sealing off land borders (for example the fences at the Spanish, Bulgarian and Greek borders ),  too many refugees are left with no other option but to risk the dangerous route across the Mediterranean Sea, to find safety.

2014 set a grim record with the highest number of refugee and migrant deaths ever recorded in the Mediterranean in one year. This amounted to nearly 3500 deaths. Half of those heading to Europe by boat in 2014 were from Syria and Eritrea, with the vast majority of them being refugees fleeing conflict and persecution.

2015: a year of change for migrants and refugees

This year in the first three months already over 450 people are known to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean, in an attempt to seek refuge in Europe.  Last week, as the European Commission announced proposals for the European Agenda on Migration, Commissioner Avramopoulos acknowledged the “sense of urgency” with which the EU needs to respond to the reality of the rising number of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees attempting to reach Europe. However, references to any search and rescue measures were dangerously omitted.

“The EU institutions and the member states must ensure a holistic response to addressing migratory flows and the deadly consequences. This includes ensuring meaningful search and rescue in the Mediterranean,” said Iverna McGowan. “As we reflect on the devastation caused by the conflict in Syria, the EU must ensure meaningful measures that match the sense of urgency expressed last week by the Commission, and turn words into action. This must be done before further lives are lost”.

For further information, or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Maeve Patterson
Head of Media & Communications
Amnesty International European Institutions Office
Email: [email protected]
Telephone: +32 (0)2 548 27 73
Mobile: +32 (0)483 680 812
Twitter: @maevepatterson
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