Another migrant disaster on the Mediterranean Sea captured Pope Francis’ attention this week. Hearing reports on Feb. 9 that 29 migrants had died of hypothermia during his general audience on Feb. 11, Pope Francis once again urged solidarity with migrants who risk their lives crossing from North Africa for Europe. But the news only got worse later in the week when the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the loss of life in the Mediterranean over the weekend of Feb. 7-8 could be higher than 300 people, including many children. A doomed group of migrants had been trying to reach Europe on four, overcrowded inflatable dinghies which were swamped by the Mediterranean’s cold waves in rough seas.
Perhaps most shocking is that most of the 29 deaths that troubled Pope Francis apparently occurred after the migrants had been pulled from the sea and onto a small rescue vessel. UNHCR officials complained that it was unclear if there had been adequate medical provision for the victims on the Italian boat.
“While we applaud all involved in the rescue effort—which took place in high seas and poor weather conditions and resulted in 106 lives being saved—this is an example of why it was felt important in October 2013, following tragedies that occurred then, to underline the need for a much more effective and improved rescue capacity in the Mediterranean to cope with the scale of the problem,” said UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards.
The latest disaster on the Mediterranean has followed significant reductions in Italian patrols for unseaworthy vessels carrying migrants. Most of the migrants seeking refuge in Europe are fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and conflict and poverty in North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Last year, the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean rose dramatically, according to UNHCR. In all, at least 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean and 3,500 lives were lost. UN officials say the number of the dead in 2014 would have been much higher had it not been for the Italian rescue mission, but “Mare Nostrum” shut down in November because its cost proved too daunting to the hard-pressed Italian government, still struggling to right the Italian economy following the 2008-10 collapse. Responsibility for Mediterranean rescue efforts was turned over to E.U. border agency Frontex at the end of 2014. But Frontex’s Operation Triton from the beginning has been perceived as inadequate to the crisis, an inadequacy that may have been intentional. Some European leaders have been concerned that the existence of rescue programs like Mare Nostrum only encourage a perilous sense of security among migrants and a willingness to make a risky crossing in unseaworthy vessels.
“We do not support the planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean," Baroness Joyce Anelay, a U.K. Foreign Office minister, said in October 2014, explaining the British decision not to help finance Operation Triton after Mare Nostrum shut down. "We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’… thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”
Other European government officials have likewise suggested that shutting down rescue efforts might deter irregular crossings, but the numbers of migrants attempting the sea passage to Europe has only gone up. The grim determination of migrants perhaps reflects a calculus of the awfulness of the conditions they hope to leave behind in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere balanced against the greater risks of crossing an unpatroled Mediterranean.
“This new tragedy realizes our worst fears about the end of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation and exposes the predictable consequences of the European Union’s failure to provide an adequate replacement,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International. “The humanitarian crisis that sparked the need for Mare Nostrum has not gone away. With people continuing to flee war and persecution, E.U. member states must stop burying their heads in the sand whilst hundreds keep dying at sea.”
The top United Nations official for refugee issues urged the European Union to change its approach to dealing with irregular crossings of the Mediterranean Sea and make saving lives the top priority. “If not, it is inevitable that many more people will die trying to reach safety in Europe,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres warned in a press release. “There can be no doubt left after this week’s events that Europe’s Operation ‘Triton’ is a woefully inadequate replacement for Italy’s ‘Mare Nostrum.’”
He said, “The focus has to be about saving lives,” he said. “We need a robust search-and-rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean, not only a border patrol.”
At the time of the hand-off to Operation Triton, Caritas Europe issued a statement deploring the de facto downgrading of the E.U. commitment to search and rescue operations: "Caritas Europa regrets the political focus on security and European border controls, as well as the cessation of Mare Nostrum that has saved more than 140,000 people since October 2013. The new Frontex operation ‘Triton’ will not ensure the rescue of migrants in international waters. Rather, Triton will only be active within 30 miles off the Italian coast. This has spread fears that more migrants and refugees will die in their attempt to reach Europe. This approach is not acceptable, as the EU and all Member States have a duty to save lives in the Mediterranean. All EU Member States should contribute to a saving and rescue force."
The statement continued: "Lives are being lost every day at the external borders of the EU. These human tragedies need to be addressed as soon as possible. People come to Europe to seek international protection or to seek a better life. Europe cannot turn a blind eye to these incidents."
Sarah Teather, a U.K. member of Parliament and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees, was furious after the latest loss of life: "This is a tragedy,” she told U.K. media, “but European leaders can't simply wash their hands in the waters of the Mediterranean and deny all responsibility. People are fleeing war. War on our doorsteps. And our response has been to systematically close down the safe, legal routes for people to find protection and to scale back methods of saving lives.”
Commenting on the crisis, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, said asylum-seekers and migrants will continue to arrive and stay in Europe “no matter what” and that “migrants will continue arriving despite all efforts to stop them, at a terrible cost in lives and suffering if nothing else is put in place.”
According to the United Nations, migrant crossings in the Mediterranean have spiked in the first few weeks of 2015 with numbers “significantly higher” compared to the same period last year. In January alone, UNHCR reported, 3,528 landed in Italy, compared to 2,171 in January 2014.
The International Organization for Migration reports that only nine people survived this attempt to cross the Mediterranean which began on a beach in Libya on Feb. 7. The group denounced the smugglers who sent hundreds to sea during a storm in inflatable dinghies.
“What’s happening now is worse than a tragedy—it is a crime—one as bad as any I have seen in 50 years of service,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. “These smuggling networks act with virtual impunity and hundreds are dying. The world must act.”
Among the survivors being supported by IOM were three children who were traveling alone. Survivors told UNHCR officials that they took to the sea from Libya on rubber dinghies and had been at sea without food and water. While many were rescued from one dinghy, only two out of about 100 passengers survived on a second dinghy and seven out of about 100 people on a third one. A fourth dinghy with more than 100 on board has not been found.
The youngest of the missing was a 12-year-old boy. The men, all from West Africa, had traveled to Libya from Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. One survivor told IOM staff in Lampedusa that smugglers “forced us to climb aboard the ship with guns and sticks, robbing us of all our belongings.” According to the IOM, this latest death toll could well eclipse the infamous October 2013 Lampedusa drownings, when 366 migrants died trying to reach Europe.
“We know what fate we are going towards and [understand] the probability of dying,” one of the African survivors told IOM staff. “But it is a sacrifice we consciously make to have a future.”