European leaders must adopt clear rules to save lives in the Mediterranean

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The news of the death of 366 migrants off the shores of Lampedusa triggered a wave of dismay among many European decision-makers. Now, EU leaders have to translate words into action, writes Karolina Babicka.

Karolina Babicka is policy and advocacy officer for migration, asylum and refugees at Caritas Europa.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Lampedusa, many European governments publicly expressed their concerns about the Mediterranean becoming an immense open-air cemetery and called for enhanced European solidarity to tackle the root causes of such tragedies.

One response that appeared in the aftermath of Lampedusa was the creation of a Task Force for the Mediterranean. This decision of the Council of the European Union was a good decision, a step in the right direction. 

On 4 December, the European Commission presented a communication on the work of the Task Force. This document also includes proposals to improve the EU’s current approach to migration, including the European search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

In addition to being focusing on solidarity in the EU, resettlement, and legal ways to access Europe, the communication presents very important and positive proposals. Like, for instance, the proposal that “shipmasters and fishermen should be publicly reassured that they will always be allowed to disembark rapidly and not face any negative legal consequences when providing assistance to migrant boats in distress.” Such a measure is very important as we know that shipmasters have been prosecuted in the past for helping migrants at sea. This is a simple and concrete measure that member states must rapidly and efficiently implement to save as many lives as possible.

However, it is regretful to see that the main focus of the communication is on cooperation with third countries and once again border security. This makes the document worryingly weak and unclear to really play a role as means to save lives at sea. And that could even jeopardise this goal.

The 4th chapter of the communication of the Task Force: “Reinforced border surveillance contributing to enhancing maritime situational picture and to the protection and saving of lives of migrants in the Mediterranean” could have gone much further and include concrete actions to make sure we effectively save lives at sea. Its main focus is still on border management and border protection, which is extremely disappointing given the public message sent by European policy makers. 

Europe needs clear rules on search and rescue operations if the EU is truly committed to putting an end to the tragedy in the Mediterranean. Rules ensuring that migrants are not pushed back when detected, and clearly establish who is responsible for rescuing boats in distress. Moreover, people in need of protection must be identified, receive proper assistance and be able to ask for international protection once they arrive to safety.

Let’s hope that the European council will adopt strong wording in its conclusions to ensure that such measures are properly implemented by the member states.

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