Saving lives must mean saving lives

Tomorrow is World Refugee Day. Here, Oscar Spooner of JRS Europe looks back at the intense debate that has raged in recent months about the 'Mediterranean migrant crisis', and repeats the Jesuit Refugee Service's call  to make saving life and providing protection the top priority.

On 19 April 2015 a boat carrying up to 850 people sank in the Mediterranean Sea. The exact causes of the incident are still being investigated, but according to reports many of the passengers had been locked below decks by those controlling the voyage. Even as people in Europe reacted with horror and dismay, in the following days more ships sank bringing the estimated death toll for the month to 1,200 people, a nine-fold increase on last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In a press release of 21 April the Jesuit Refugee Service repeated its call on European leaders to prioritise the saving of lives and at the same time to open up safe and legal ways for people seeking protection to get to Europe. The voice of JRS was joined by many others from Caritas, Amnesty and ECRE (European Council on Refugees and Exiles), to name just a few.

These repeated tragedies on Europe’s doorstep could no longer be ignored and European policymakers quickly came up with a ten-point action plan which was adopted by a European Council meeting of 23 April. The majority of points were concerned with security issues rather than ways to defend human dignity and to save lives.

The discussions continued. By 13 May, the European Commission released its communication on the European Agenda on Migration which underlined the necessity for “swift and determined action in response to the human tragedy in the whole Mediterranean.” On 27 May, further details on the agenda were issued without full clarifications on the new search and rescue operations.

What has happened so far?

The EU border agency Frontex has received more money and resources to continue operations in the Mediterranean. Indeed, the budget and operational area now matches that of the former Italian search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum. However, it is still being debated whether or not search and rescue falls within the mandate of Frontex. Even the director of the agency has said before that Frontex is mandated to manage national borders and not to save lives. Surely, managing borders effectively does not include letting people die? It is essential that this question is positively resolved in order to ensure the efficacy of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.Rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean - UNHCR

At the moment, search and rescue is mostly provided by the Italian and Maltese navies as well as the commercial ships which regularly answer to the emergency calls of boats in distress. The three NGOs, Médécins sans Frontières, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station and the Norwegian Refugee Council have launched their own boats and teams for search and rescue. However, without a structured, European search and rescue operation, there is a huge risk that at least some boats in distress will not be helped in time. More and more migrants will lose their lives while crossing the Mediterranean.

With the European Agenda on Migration, European leaders focus more on fighting smugglers than deploying an effective search and rescue operation. JRS Europe urges the European Union to first create an operation which will protect and save human lives. Moreover, in order to avoid more deaths in the Mediterranean, European leaders urgently need to detail concrete measures which provide people fleeing war, violence and indiscriminate human rights violations with ways to reach Europe safely.

Main photo: An Ethiopian family, who were resettled to the UK from Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, enjoy a day on Brighton beach (UNHCR / H. Davies)

Right: The Italian navy rescuing people at sea in June 2014 (UNHCR/Italian Navy/M.Sestini)