Mediterranean migrant deaths show limits of EU rescue efforts

The deaths of at least 300 migrants trying to reach Italy come amid what is normally a winter lull in boat crossings. The UN says that 218,000 migrants, including many fleeing wars in Africa and the Middle East, took this route in 2014.

Antonio Parrinello/Reuters
Migrants who survived a shipwreck arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday. The UN refugee agency estimates that at least 300 people drowned this week after attempting to cross the sea in stormy weather.

At least 300 people are believed to have drowned this week while trying to reach Italy, the latest tragedy on the world’s most dangerous sea crossing for migrants and refugees.

The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released the estimated death toll Wednesday after speaking to survivors on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Italian coast guard and a merchant ship reportedly rescued about 107 people who had left the coast of Libya in four rubber boats on Saturday. Two boats capsized, and a fourth is missing

The sharp increase in the number of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean raises questions about the European Union’s border patrol operation known as Triton. The UNHCR and other aid agencies say the border force, which began three months ago, is inadequate because it only patrols waters close to shore and isn't focused on search-and-rescue. 

"This is a tragedy on an enormous scale and a stark reminder that more lives could be lost if those seeking safety are left at the mercy of the sea,” UNHCR Europe Bureau Director Vincent Cochetel said in a statement. “Saving lives should be our top priority. Europe cannot afford to do too little too late."

The EU-backed rescue patrol replaced Italy's robust Mare Nostrum operation in November. Italy phased out its program, a full-scale search-and-rescue mission that patrolled the waters up to Libya's coast, to save money. Critics had also cited the program as being a lure for migrants since Italy stood ready to save their rickety boats from disaster. 

Rather than replicating the Italian mission – which saved more than 100,000 shipwrecked refugees during its year in operation – Triton focuses on border surveillance. It operates with fewer ships and only within 30 miles of the Italian coast. 

For months, aid agencies and experts have warned that the EU’s scaled-back operation would lead to more deaths. The Guardian reports that its 2.9 million euro ($3.3 million) budget is less than a third that of its predecessor. 

As The BBC’s Matthew Price reports:

There is no way of knowing for sure whether the migrants would have been saved if Mare Nostrum was still running.

But having spent a week on board an Italian navy frigate, I can be sure they would have done their utmost to save as many lives as possible.

The EU's Triton border patrol is not designed to do that. It cannot pre-empt trouble in international waters – it can only act when lives are immediately at risk.

UNHCR reports that at least 218,000 people completed the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in 2014. The International Organization for Migrants (IOM) estimates more than 3,200 people died at sea while trying to reach Europe last year. It warns that the flow of migrants has now reached crisis proportions.

“What’s happening now is worse than a tragedy – it is a crime – one as bad as any I have seen in fifty years of service,” IOM Director General William Lacy Swing said in a statement.

The unprecedented scale of trafficking is being driven by a growing number of people desperate to escape deadly conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. The UN reported in June that 50 million people fled their homes last year because of war and persecution, the highest number of forcibly displaced persons since World War II.

In January, Syrians refugees made up the largest single population group among those arriving in Italy. They accounted for 32 percent of the 3,528 arrivals.

The trafficking has also been fueled by the vast profits smugglers in Libya stand to make – and the fact that they can operate with impunity in what is effectively a failed state.

“It really is like the slave trade,” Ewa Moncure, a spokeswoman for the EU's border control agency, told The Christian Science Monitor in November. 

“The poorer migrants, who are generally black Africans, pay $500 to $800 for a space in the hold. The wealthier refugees, many of whom are middle-class Syrians, pay up to $2,500 to ensure a place on deck," she explained. "For the people in the hold, if the boat goes down, forget it – they die."

This week’s tragedy suggests that the annual people-smuggling season in the Mediterranean has started sooner than expected. IOM reports that hundreds of people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since the beginning of January. Twenty-seven people died over the same time period last year.

January and February are traditionally slow months because of the winter weather. Since most grow busier as spring approaches, aid workers warn that 2015 could be the deadliest year yet in the Mediterranean.

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