In the past months, the European Union has witnessed an increase in the numbers of people attempting to reach the European external borders. Even though the numbers are still lower than they have been before the outbreak of the pandemic, an all too familiar pattern remains – the loss of life. More specifically, the loss of life due to high risks when attempting to cross the sea borders to reach the EU. Most notably, one recalls the recent Libyan shipwreck in April 2021 that claimed the life of 130 migrants, despite numerous SOS calls.

In a recent statement, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 16,700 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean route since the start of the year, while around 750 have died. Together with IOM, UNHCR has released a joint statement calling for ‘urgent action’ in the Central Mediterranean to prevent further loss of life. They call on the international community to take urgent steps to end the avoidable loss of lives at sea. For example, by reactivating search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

International law imposes the obligation to assist persons and ships in distress at sea, however, the European approach has shifted over the past few years to prioritize the enforcement against migrants at sea. On the 23rd of May 2021, the Swedish Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, stated that ‘words are not enough when trying to find a sustainable solution to the tragedies. According to the European Commission, the solution lies on dry land, to prevent travels before they even start. Namely, the securitized approach of the EU has led to the strengthening of the cooperation with third countries to intercept migrants, as well as the criminalization of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that launch their search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean. However, the Commissioner also created a European Contact Group of Member States on search and rescue, that aims to reinforce cooperation and liaise with different stakeholders involved in Search and Rescue operations:

‘I have proposed for the first time a binding system of solidarity, including relocations, tailored made to Search and Rescue cases. Since people need support. Since the Member States with sea borders need specific support. Since geography should not play a role – search and rescue operations are carried out for the union as a whole.’

Lastly, the Commissioner highlights that updating the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) aims to make it compulsory for the Member States to report search and rescue operations and incidents. This may yet be another crucial step towards holding stakeholders accountable. Especially those who have been accused of illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers and other migrants.

In the latest report by OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), published on the 26th of May 2021, the UN suggests that the loss of life at sea is not merely a ‘tragic anomaly, but rather a consequence of concrete policy decisions and practices by the Libyan authorities, European Union (EU) Member States and institutions.’ The ‘lethal disregard for desperate people’ has been highly criticized by the High Commissioner and he urges for more determined and effective action to deploy search and rescue operations.

For the moment, however, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum is only in its early stages and no concrete outcomes have emerged. Considering the recent tragedies, the need for a concrete mechanism is apparent. The call for the European Union to act is higher than before. It is indeed #TimetoDeliverMigrationEU and to prevent the loss of life at sea. EU law should define a common and human rights-based arrangement that ensures safety and protection of lives at sea, without there being room for interpretation, such as, allowing the criminalization of humanitarian operations carried out by non-state actors. All in all, there must first be a recognition and a will to cooperate to end the tragedies at sea.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like
Read More

There Was Me

There was me With all frightened faces under weapons Some were throttled to death Some chopped into pieces…