More than 1,000 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe in 2019, the sixth year in a row that the “bleak milestone” has been reached, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has said.
In a statement on Tuesday, three months before the end of the year, UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said the agency “is urgently calling for an increase in search and rescue capacity”, including a return of European Union state vessels to operations “and an acknowledgement of the crucial role of NGO boats in saving lives at sea”.
At least 18,000 people have lost their lives in Mediterranean crossings since 2014, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.
For more than a year, humanitarian ships that picked up refugees and migrants from rickety boats at sea were blocked from docking or disembarking passengers in Italy or Malta.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former anti-migrant interior minister, even threatened to jail the crews of rescue ships run by aid groups.
The stance taken by the two countries resulted in standoffs that kept rescued people at sea for weeks until other EU nations pledged to take at least some of the people seeking safety or better lives in Europe.
Most of the rescues occurred in a vast search and rescue area that Libya registered last year with EU backing, stretching about halfway to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
This technically makes Libya’s EU-trained coastguard responsible for rescue operations in the area.
But humanitarian organisations insist they cannot legally hand people over to be taken back to a country in a conflict where their lives could be endangered. Some migrants have thrown themselves overboard rather than be taken back by the Libyan coastguard.
Four EU nations will seek endorsement next week from their bloc partners for a “fast-track system” for getting migrants off boats in trouble in the Mediterranean and distributing people on board who want to seek asylum among countries willing to take them.
Germany, France, Italy and Malta want approval for a process that would screen refugees and migrants, relocate asylum seekers and return people who do not apply or qualify, all within four weeks, according to a statement obtained by the civil liberties watchdog Statewatch.
The statement said all vessels engaged in rescue operations would be required “to comply with instructions given by the competent Rescue Coordination Center”, which in most cases probably means the Libyan authorities.
They are warned not to obstruct search and rescue operations by official coastguard ships, including the ones operated by Libyan authorities.
EU member countries are urged to provide more aircraft and drones so aerial surveillance can be increased near the Northern African coast.
In a veiled warning to NGOs actively looking for migrant boats in distress in the Mediterranean, the four countries underlined that “the facilitation of illegal migration at sea is an offence” and that “the systematic activity facilitating irregular migration poses a particular cause for concern”.