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Migrants’ lives in Mediterranean must be saved

23 April 2015 8:52


The crisis of recurring deadly migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean is a tragedy, which is in dire need of a coordinated rescue response, a top United Nations official says.

“Our ability to save lives at sea has to be guaranteed because the current situation is a tremendous tragedy,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres at a briefing at the Organization of American States in Washington late on Wednesday

The remarks came after an overcrowded boat capsized on April 19, about 96 kilometers (60 miles) off the Libyan coast and 193 kilometers (120 miles) south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, on its way to Europe.

The fatal incident, in which 800 people are feared to have perished, could be the deadliest in a series of migrant shipwrecks that have claimed over 1,750 lives so far in 2015.

Guterres pointed to the suspension of the Italian Navy’s search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum in 2014 amid concerns that it could encourage more migrants to make the life-risking voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe.

“Today we know that the fact that there is no effective rescue operation in place has not reduced, but rather increased the number of people who try to cross the Mediterranean,” said Guterres, adding, “There are people traffickers. And we have to take a very tough line with these people who violate human rights.”

European leaders are to hold a meeting aimed at tackling the issue in the Belgian capital of Brussels on Thursday.

A draft statement, seen by AFP on Wednesday, shows that EU leaders will mull over launching a military operation against human traffickers in Libya, and would commit to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers.”

According to the latest reports, about 170,000 migrants entered the EU region through Italy last year, with most of them departing from Libya.

Humanitarian organizations say there has been a recent surge in the number of the migrants making the deadly journey across the Mediterranean Sea from different routes into the European Union as weather and sea conditions improve with the coming of spring.

Italy’s reaction

Meanwhile, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called on the European Union and United Nations on Wednesday to set up operations in African countries south of Libya to “go to the root [of the problem] and discourage these men and women from leaving their countries” to help stem the flow of migrants heading for Europe.

“There has to be a strong presence of the international organizations in the area south of Libya. It is vital that the EU as a bloc tries to go into these areas along with the United Nations,” the Italian premier added.

Noting that “the calling of an EU summit is an extraordinary step,” Renzi said, “I’m optimistic we will see a change of gear.”

He urged the EU to step up rescue operations at the Mediterranean Sea to reduce the loss of life among those people who do attempt the crossing.

“Fighting people trafficking means fighting the slave traders of the 21st century. It is not only a question of security and terrorism — it is about human dignity,” Renzi added.

Although EU foreign ministers have already agreed to double the funding of the bloc’s Mediterranean maritime border patrol mission, Triton, refugee officials still believe that it is inadequate and have called on Italy to resume larger-scale naval patrols off Libya.

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