‘Unrealistic’ to think Libya can operate all rescues at sea, UN Special Envoy says

Vincent Cochelet, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation. [Noemi Bruzak/EPA]

In spite of the drop of attempts to cross the Central Mediterranean, the death rate in this part of the sea has increased over the past few months. EURACTIV talked to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Special Envoy Vincent Cochetel about the situation in the world’s deadliest border.

Arrivals to Europe from Libya fell by 86% according to UN special body for refugees UNHCR, that’s 1,900 people. However, 331 did not make it. In 2019, one person has died for every six people who have arrived in Europe from Libya.

In spite of the dramatic situation, there are fewer search and rescue operations in the area, partly due to the inability of the coastal countries to coordinate disembarkations,  and partly due to persecution against NGOs.

“I would not put the responsibility solely on Europe, I think that rescue at sea is not only an obligation for European coastal states, but it is a responsibility for all coastal states,” UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel told EURACTIV.

However, “to assume that Libyan coast guards and Navy can manage all rescue activities in their search and rescue area is totally unrealistic because their response is unpredictable,” Cochetel warned.

No more ships to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean

Italy’s decision to block the ship of German NGO Sea-Watch in the port of Catania, Sicily, means that there are currently no ships from humanitarian organisations to rescue migrants in the Mediterannean. EURACTIV’s media partner Euroefe reports.

No safety in Libya

Europe has been relying on Libyan capacity during the past few months. “There is a fundamental misunderstanding by some European Union countries that SAR [Search and Rescue] coordination means that Libya is competent in its zone to coordinate rescue and to find a place of disembarkation,” UNHCR Special Envoy explained.

“But it doesn’t mean disembarkation needs to take place in Libya, nor that they have to operate all the rescues,” Cochetel stressed, “there is no place of safety in Libya.”

In spite of allegations that Libyan coastguards are guilty of human rights violations, Cochetel said that the main issue remains the situation in the land.

“After people are disembarked, they are handed over to another department which brings the people back to detention,” the UNHCR Special Envoy said, adding: “this is unacceptable.”

Many of those migrants and asylum seekers rescued at sea disappear. UNHCR suspects they are being sold to the same smugglers that would then put them in a boat.

“Today Libya is not a safe country and we are opposed to returning to Libya,” Cochetel stated. Although the UNHCR has been working with Libyan authorities on alternatives to detention centres, it has not been successful so far.

“We would like to see more engagement of the countries in the Mediterranean to provide solutions for people disembarking,” Cochetel said. “In 2019, the numbers have gone down considerably, by 85% less than in 2018, so it’s a manageable situation,” he added.

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The need for alternative solutions

However, EU member states have been unable to coordinate a response to people in distress in the Mediterranean. On Wednesday (27 June), Sea-Watch 3 NGO boat entered Italian waters after being denied access several times, facing a fine of thousands of euros.

“It’s ridiculous, states need to agree on finding a disembarkation solution” when there are people in distress, Cochetel warned, which does not necessarily mean countries will always be the same and would be responsible for everything after disembarkation.

“That’s why you need predictable solidarity on sharing of responsibilities, quick processing return for those not in need of protection, the relocation of others in need of international protection… The situation should not be left to one country, because geography alone should not influence responsibility.”

Cochetel rejected allegations that having rescue operations is a pulling factor for refugees. “We don’t have evidence of that to start with,” he explained. The UNHCR special envoy  also expressed disappointment at the Italian government’s decision to fine NGOs working in the Mediterranean.

“There is a humanitarian imperative, which is to save lives wherever they are, could be migrants, they could be you or me, it could be a problem with a commercial ship and the crew needs to be saved,” he warned.

“Fining the NGOs do not seem to us the way to address the situation,” Cochetel said.

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Europe’s migration crisis is over, the EU’s migration chief said on Wednesday (6 March), blaming “misinformation, untruths and fake news” for clouding the debate on the issue, which he said could dominate campaigning for the European elections in May.

Safe passage to prevent deaths

According to UNHCR, there are currently 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Most of them remain in their countries or move to neighbouring areas instead of seeking protection far away from home. However, people still try to reach Europe.

In order to prevent them from risking their lives, UNHCR calls for the establishment of safe passages for migrants and asylum seekers.

“In the Valetta Action Plan, Europe had agreed that it would be important to develop legal passages for refugees, but also some legal migration,” Cochetel recalled, “we need to make sure we operationalise those safe ways.”

“We don’t we’re not saying all refugees should be resettled to Europe, that’s unrealistic plus it would be stupid because the majority of refugees don’t want to be resettled,” he explained.

However, he demanded more generosity from the EU.

“It’s about time to focus on root causes. It’s about time to work also on solutions and we hope the European Union will be a bit more ambitious in this respect,” UNHCR special envoy insisted.

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Although irregular arrivals in Europe are at their lowest level in five years, migration remains one of the top priorities for European citizens in the upcoming EU election. EURACTIV has looked into the European parties’ proposals on the matter.

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