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Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year

Justice & Home Affairs

Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year

Pro-migrant banner. Oranienplatz, Berlin.

[Joel Schalit]

A record number of migrants will drown in the Mediterranean this year if the current death rate remains unchecked, after 10 times as many migrants lost their lives during the first three months of 2015 as during the equivalent period in 2014.

At least 486 asylum seekers have drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of the year, compared with 46 in the first three months of 2014, according to preliminary figures supplied to the Guardian by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The death toll has risen sharply even though the number of migrants arriving in Europe by sea has remained roughly the same. It suggests that the EU’s decision not to create a like-for-like replacement of Mare Nostrum, a full-scale Italian rescue operation that folded last October, has neither curbed the number of attempts to cross the sea, nor fatalities along the way.

The rate of deaths far outstrips the rate in early 2014, leading to fears that the total number of drownings in 2015 will eventually surpass last year’s total of 3,419, which was itself a record. A quarter of the way into the year, the 2015 death toll has already almost overtaken the total annual estimates from 2012 and 2013, which respectively reached 500 and 600.

An IOM spokesman said it was impossible to say definitively what had caused the rise. But civilian coastguard patrols are struggling to fill the void left by the navy frigates that led operations for Mare Nostrum, said Flavio Di Giacomo, IOM’s spokesman in Italy.

Of the 170,000 migrants rescued in 2014, roughly half were saved by the Italian navy. Its ships were able to rescue hundreds of migrants at a time, provide them immediately with medical treatment, and also remain at sea for longer, cutting down rescue-response times. By contrast, the coastguard vessels that have been tasked with picking up the slack in 2015 are much smaller, and have to return to port sooner.

“There are many reasons for these shipwrecks, so we can’t say that this 486 would have been 40 or 50” if Mare Nostrum was still operational, said Di Giacomo. “But it is true that last year Mare Nostrum involved these big navy ships that were able to intercept and rescue many migrants at sea, while now some [migrant] ships are not able to be rescued because the Italian coastguards arrive too late.”

The EU-funded Operation Triton, which was introduced after the closure of Mare Nostrum, also intercepts migrant ships. But its primary function is to patrol Europe’s maritime borders, rather than rescue stricken vessels, and as a result only operates within 30 miles of the European coast. Unlike Mare Nostrum’s ships, which frequently sailed within reach of the north African coast, Triton is consequently unable to reach boats that encounter trouble closer to their origin in Libya.

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This decline in capacity worries Matteo de Bellis, a researcher on European migration for Amnesty International who recently returned from a fact-finding trip in the Mediterranean. De Bellis said: “Clearly we are very concerned because, while there is still a big number of people prepared to take this very dangerous trip, we don’t see sufficient resources put towards patrolling the high seas and engaging in rescue operations. When you receive an SOS call from a distressed vessel, having a ship that is only one or two hours away – rather than 15 hours away – makes all the difference.”

Though the rate of smuggling trips dropped slightly in March, the number of migrants who have reached Italy by sea since January is still roughly the same – at just over 10,000 – as last year’s figure. A spokesperson for Frontex, the EU’s border agency, said that more Syrians seem to be leaving Turkey for the Greek islands, a shorter voyage made by another estimated 10,000 people so far this year. Numbers are expected to rise much further once the peak smuggling season begins in a few weeks, with migrants saying that the increased maritime dangers are of less concern than the unrest they are trying to escape.

Abu Osama, a Syrian civil servant who fled with his family to Cairo in 2013, plans to sail illegally next week to Italy from Egypt, another common launch-pad for asylum seekers. He says xenophobia, poverty, and a low-level insurgency mean he is unable to get the fresh start in Egypt that he hoped for after being tortured in Syria.

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“There’s no other choice,” said Osama, who was arrested as he tried to leave Egypt in a previous attempt last year. “We see the situation here in Egypt. Just last week we had three explosions in this area. The security service comes searching for people. When I first came to the local supermarket, the shopkeeper realised I was Syrian, so he started shouting at me. Even the officer at the passports office treats us in a very arrogant way – he acts like he’s disgusted with us. So we just want to get out of this atmosphere. We’ve already suffered a lot.”

The EU is expected to announce a review of its migration policies in early May. Anticipating the review, a UN special representative said this week that Europe needed a wholesale rethink about its piecemeal approach to migration, calling it “one of the great issues of our time”.

Amnesty hopes the review will include the reintroduction of a full-scale rescue operation funded by all European states, rather than just Italy.

Amnesty’s De Bellis said: “We really need them to prioritise saving lives on the high seas, otherwise this summer will bring us a number of victims that is comparable to last year, or even greater.”