Amid Spike in Migrants Crossing the Mediterranean, Europe Is Still Delaying Rescues

“They know where we are and they just wait for the Libyans to come tomorrow to pick our corpses,” came the anguished call from a boat in distress.

The civil rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 rescued 65 people from a rubber boat in distress, about 30 nautical miles off the Libyan coast, on May 15, 2019. Photo: Nick Jaussi/Courtesy of Sea-Watch

As summer weather warms the Mediterranean, the number of boats bearing migrants that are caught in distress has spiked, according to groups involved in running search and rescue operations there. Advocates say that European policies aimed at limiting the number of migrants reaching their shores are in fact making the route more deadly.

More migrants than usual have been leaving Libya for southern Europe in small crafts in the last month and falling into danger along the way, according to Haidi Sadik of Sea-Watch, a nonprofit that does search and rescue.

“Our civil reconnaissance aircraft called Moonbird has been flying missions throughout the year, including in May, and has seen a significant increase in the number of boats in distress from the air,” said Sadik.

“We’ve definitely also seen an increase over the last few weeks,” said Maurice Stierl, who helped found Alarm Phone, an activist collective that runs an emergency hotline for migrants in distress in the Mediterranean.

According to the Missing Migrants Project, at least 107 migrants died this May crossing the Mediterranean, up from 60 in April. And though far fewer migrants overall compared to this time last year are making the trip, a greater portion of those who do attempt the crossing are dying.

In the first six months of 2018, 791 of the 70,531 people who attempted the Mediterranean crossing to Europe — 1.1 percent — died. Since January of this year, 35,122 people have attempted the crossing, and 543 have died — 1.5 percent overall, per the Missing Migrants Project.

Another factor in the sudden uptick in crossing attempts is the recent increase of violence in Libya, the country through which thousands of migrants fleeing violence and poverty have passed on their way to Europe. Last month, Amnesty International voiced concerns that the lives of hundreds of migrants and refugees in detention centers in Libya were under imminent threat as fighting between armed militias in the area drew closer.

But Sam Turner, Médecins Sans Frontières’ head of mission for Libya, says the increased death rate in the Mediterranean is of particular note. “That’s a really key point in terms of challenging the narrative that the actions taken to prevent people from crossing the central Mediterranean … [are] leading to fewer deaths,” he told The Intercept. About 1 in 13 migrants making the crossing in the central Mediterranean region in the first five months of this year died, says Turner; last year for the same period, the number was 1 in 58.

Meanwhile, according to data compiled by Matteo Villa, a researcher at the think tank Italian Institute for International Political Studies, the number of migrants returned to Libya by the Libyan coast guard or others increased nearly tenfold from April to May, with an estimated 1,224 migrants being returned to the war-torn country in May, compared to 130 the month before. This is the greatest number of people returned to Libya since July 2018.

On Monday, two human rights lawyers filed a 244-page complaint with the International Criminal Court, or ICC, accusing European Union governments of knowingly sending thousands of migrants to their deaths in implementing their deterrence-based migration policies.

Omer Shatz, one of the lawyers who co-authored the request for the case to be taken on by the ICC, said that there used to be four major actors in the Mediterranean dealing with migrants crossing in boats: European governments, NGOs, commercial vessels, and the Libyan coast guard.

Commercial vessels, which once rescued migrants from the water, now avoid doing so to evade being implicated in an increasingly politicized act. “You can guarantee that you will end up in a political standoff without somewhere to disembark these people despite the fact that you have simply engaged in a humanitarian act,” said Turner.

NGOs, according to the ICC complaint, became critical actors in the Mediterranean after the EU’s 2014 decision to decrease its search and rescue operations. Yet “EU and Italian actors launched a broad political persecution against rescue NGOs, which includes intimidation, defamation, harassment, and formal criminalization,” the complaint reads. As The Intercept has reported, rescue ships have been seized and volunteers arrested.

With the support of the EU, last year Libya established a search and rescue region beyond its territorial waters, expanding the bounds of where the country coordinates and executes search and rescue operations. As the EU has scaled down its involvement, the principal actor on these waters has become the Libyan coast guard, said Shatz.

The Libyan coast guard does save lives every day, says Turner, but they can’t keep up with the number of attempted crossings, and the people they do save are sent back to dangerous and deadly conditions. (Libyan coast guard officers have also been accused of abuse themselves.) “Any rescue conducted by the Libyan coast guard results in a de facto forced return; the same place they were fleeing is the place they’re taken back to,” says Turner.

According to an Alarm Phone report published May 21, European authorities have refrained from assisting certain groups of migrants in distress in an apparent attempt to defer search and rescue responsibility to the Libyan coast guard. “Over the last two months … we had to witness several severe human rights violations at sea, including forms of push-back, refoulement, and non-assistance,” the report reads.

Alarm Phone’s Stierl added that migrants seem to be changing their tactics of survival in response to the policies. “They only call when they’ve gotten further into European search and rescue zones,” he said.

Alarm Phone shared an edited portion of a recent entry in its logbook with The Intercept that detailed one such event. On May 29, according to the book, the hotline made contact via satellite phone with a boat carrying about 100 people.

The Alarm Phone entry for 1:20 a.m. on May 30 reads:

Talked with the boat again – again we cannot promise when coastguards are coming. He says: “It is so fucking inhumane what they are doing with us. We are here in the sea for more than a day now. They came with airplanes helicopters and everything. They know where we are and they just wait for the Libyans to come tomorrow to pick our corpses. Those who will still be alive will maybe then also go into the water because they want rather to die than to go back to Libya. Why can’t they let any fisher boat save us and then at least to avoid people to die. They can bring us to whatever shitty prison. But this situation here is so inhumane, you cannot imagine how we suffer.” We tell him that we will stay with them until the end, whatever happens. We promise that we call the coastguards and inform the public to raise pressure. He thanks us for being with them.

The group, according to Alarm Phone, were ultimately rescued by the Italian navy, which means that they became among the few these days to head for an Italian port. But the rescue took too long, Alarm Phone maintains.

“The @ItalianNavy vessel P490 had monitored the boat in distress yesterday already & could have rescued them nearly a day ago. This act of #non-assistance risked the lives of 90 people,” wrote Alarm Phone on Twitter.

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