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Europe’s ‘hollow’ promises on refugee deaths in the Mediterranean

Until leaders fundamentally change Europe’s migration policy thousands of men, women and children will continue die trying to reach safety – argues Tim Hancock

When European Union leaders met shortly after the Lampedusa tragedy last month, in which more than 300 people drowned off the coast of the Italian island, we hoped the scale of the disaster would spur them into action to save lives at Europe’s borders. After all, while the numbers made the disaster one of the worst incidents in Italy’s maritime history, it was far from a one-off.

Just days earlier, 13 migrants – the majority from Eritrea – drowned when their boat ran aground off Ragusa in Sicily. The following week, 27 migrants drowned off the coast of Malta. As the EU leaders met on October 24-25, 800 migrants were pulled out of the Mediterranean in three separate incidents as they tried to reach safety or a better life in Europe.

Week after week, small inflatable and barely seaworthy boats of migrants and asylum-seekers desperate for a better, and safer, life set off from the coasts of North Africa and Turkey in an attempt to get to Europe. Week after week, lives are lost in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

It is usually a handful here and a handful there, the individual numbers not high enough it seems to make international news headlines. Those numbers alone should shock but add them together and the picture is overwhelming. Between January and September this year, more than 31,000 migrants arrived in Italy alone via sea routes – mainly landing on Sicily and Lampedusa. They are the lucky ones. Since 1988, some 19,000 have drowned trying. That is well above 700 a year.

People trying to make it to Europe do so for the chance of something better than the poverty, violence and persecution they hope to have left behind. Just take a look at where they come from – Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan – and the reasons they are so desperate to reach a place of safety need little explanation. The instability and oppression that force them to leave look unlikely to change any time soon. Until things improve, thousands will weigh up the dangers and conclude that the perilous journey to Europe is worth the risk.

That is what makes it even more vital that the EU acts now to prevent further loss of life. The union and its member states must increase search and rescue capacity at sea. They must create safe routes for refugees to Europe so they do not have to make dangerous journeys. European states should make a firm commitment to international solidarity by significantly increasing resettlement quotas and ensuring generous humanitarian admission programmes and facilitating visas. And the EU must stop cooperating on migration control with countries like Libya that flout human rights obligations until those nations demonstrate respect for migrant and refugee rights; including establishing a satisfactory system for assessing asylum claims.

When EU leaders met last month to discuss the tragedy, they expressed sadness at events in Lampedusa. But their lamentations were exposed as hollow when the measures they outlined to deal with the problem were revealed. They show that Europe’s priority clearly is not to save lives or to protect people along the borders. Instead it is to prevent people from arriving in Europe at all costs, even if those people are in need of safety and protection.

In their proposals, search and rescue capacity is not addressed, nor is the need to open safe routes for refugees to Europe. Their conclusions made no mention of the need for European nations to prioritise people’s lives and rights when cooperating on migration control with countries on the other side of the Mediterranean. Instead, what they propose is a system that focuses on enhanced border surveillance. This will simply lead to more people taking even riskier routes to reach the continent.

A new task force for the Mediterranean was also established but will only report back in December. The union says that concrete actions will follow later. But the time to act is now. Until leaders fundamentally change Europe’s migration policy, thousands of men, women and children will continue die trying to reach safety.

Tim Hancock is campaign director at Amnesty International

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