Tag Archives: Search and Rescue

Lampedusa – 300 or more dead in latest accident, what can be done to stop migrant deaths at sea?

Italian authorities have so far recovered about 120 bodies from yesterday’s accident a very very short distance from the shores of Lampedusa. Authorities believe there may be more than 150 bodies of children, women, and men still to be recovered.

What can be done to prevent such deaths? It is certainly possible that nothing could have prevented yesterday’s disaster.  This was not a case of a disabled boat left to drift at sea while ships and aircraft failed to assist.  This was not a case involving a failure to act promptly to rescue persons in distress.  This was not a case of a diplomatic dispute between countries over which country had the responsibility to rescue and where rescued persons were to be disembarked after rescue.  It may turn out to be the case that someone observed the overloaded migrant boat as it sailed from Libya towards Lampedusa.  If the migrant boat was observed by a commercial or military ship, a rescue operation probably should have been implemented immediately.  But while the Mediterranean Sea is crowded with ships, it is certainly possible that this boat sailed unobserved from Libya to Lampedusa.

Could anything have been done to prevent these deaths?

Could anything have been done to prevent the deaths of 13 migrants who drowned on the beach at Sicily last week? Or the 31 people who drowned off the Libyan coast in July? Or the 20 who died near Lesvos Island in Greece last December, the 89 who died in the Strait of Gibraltar over 10 days in October-November 2012, or the 58 who died off the coast of Izmir, Turkey in September 2012?  (For a more complete list of reported deaths at sea consult Fortress Europe’s La Strage web page (the Massacre).)

As long as people move, whether forced to flee danger or to improve their lives or for other reasons, there will be dangers on land and sea.  The dangers will always be greater when people are compelled to move outside of legal channels. Creating more opportunities for legal migration and creating an external procedure for seeking refugee protection within the EU would help many people and would reduce the numbers of people traveling by dangerous means.  But there will still be people unable to secure a visa or protection who would be compelled to travel by sea. 

There are many measures that can be taken by the EU to reduce the numbers of people dying in the Mediterranean and off the coast of western Africa.  As a reminder, here is an excerpt from the recommendations issued last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the report issued in the aftermath of the deaths of 63 people on board the “left to die” boat that drifted in the Mediterranean for two weeks. The recommendations made sense then as they do now:

  •  fill the vacuum of responsibility for an SAR zone left by a State which cannot or does not exercise its responsibility for search and rescue, such as was the case for Libya. This may require amending the International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (SAR Convention)….;
  • ensure that there are clear and simple guidelines, which are then followed, on what amounts to a distress signal, so as to avoid any confusion over the obligation to launch a search and rescue operation for a boat in distress;
  • avoid differing interpretations of what constitutes a vessel in distress, in particular as concerns overloaded, unseaworthy boats, even if under propulsion, and render appropriate assistance to such vessels. Whenever safety requires that a vessel be assisted, this should lead to rescue actions;
  • tackle the reasons why commercial vessels fail to go to the rescue of boats in distress. This will require dealing with:
    • the economic consequences for the rescuing vessel and its owners, and the issue of compensation;
    • the disagreement between Malta and Italy as to whether disembarkation should be to the nearest safe port or to a port within the country of the SAR zone. The International Maritime Organization should be urged to find a solution to the matter and step up its efforts towards a harmonised interpretation and application of international maritime law;
    • the fear of criminalisation (trafficking or aiding and abetting irregular migration) by those who go to the rescue of boats carrying irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees;
    • legislation to criminalise private shipmasters who fail to comply with their duty under the law of the sea, as is already the case in certain Council of Europe member States;
  • ensure that, in accordance with the Hirsi v. Italy judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, after the rescue operation, people are not pushed back to a country where they risk being treated in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • tackle the issue of responsibility sharing, particularly in the context of rescue services, disembarkation, administration of asylum requests, setting up reception facilities and relocation and resettlement, with a view to developing a binding European Union protocol for the Mediterranean region. The heavy burden placed on frontline States leads to a problem of saturation and a reluctance to take responsibility;
  • respect the families’ right to know the fate of those who lose their lives at sea by improving identity data collection and sharing. This could include the setting up of a DNA file of the remains of those retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea. In this context, the ongoing work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organisations should be acknowledged and supported.

For more on this, see Jack Shenker’s article in today’s Guardian, “Mediterranean migrant deaths: a litany of largely avoidable loss.”

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Filed under Council of Europe, European Union, Frontex, Italy, Libya, Mediterranean

Italy Diverts Additional Commercial Ships to Rescue Migrants

The Italian news agency AGI reported that Italian search and rescue authorities yesterday diverted two commercial ships, the Patroclus, a Maltese oil tanker, and the Cdry White, an Italian cargo ship, to assist with the rescue of two groups of migrants.  The first group of approximately 76 migrants was rescued about 40 miles from Tripoli by an Italian coastguard vessel; the group was then transferred to the Cdry White.  The Patroclus appears to have directly rescued a group of approximately 97 migrants south of Lampedusa.  AGI reported that the two commercial ships are sailing to Trapani and Pozzallo in Sicily to disembark the rescued migrants.

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At Least 20 Persons Dead After Migrant Boat Capsizes in Aegean Sea

A migrant boat attempting to sail from Turkey to Greece reportedly capsized near the Greek island of Lesvos on Thursday or Friday.  The boat was carrying about 28 persons.  At least 20 bodies have been recovered.  Only one survivor has been located.  Media reports describe the migrants as Iraqis or “of Asian origin.”  The boat’s captain was reportedly Turkish.

Click here (EN), here (EN) and here (GR) for articles.

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UN Special Rapporteur on HR of Migrants expresses concern over Italy-Libya cooperation on migration

The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Prof. François Crépeau, for the past six months has been conducting “a one-year comprehensive study to examine the rights of migrants in the Euro-Mediterranean region, focusing in particular on the management of the external borders of the European Union.”  The Special Rapporteur will present a thematic report on the human rights of migrants at the borders of the European Union to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2013.  To date he has concluded official visits to EU offices in Brussels, Tunisia, Turkey, and Italy; a nine-day visit to Greece began on 25 November.  The Special Rapporteur has issued preliminary conclusions at the end of each completed mission.  One common concern is that various actions of the EU and neighbouring countries are resulting in human rights considerations being overshadowed by migration control and security objectives.

At the conclusion of the most recent mission to Italy (30 September – 8 October 2012), the Special Rapporteur expressed concern over Italy’s (and the EU’s) ongoing cooperation with Libya:

“Another matter of paramount importance are the bilateral cooperation agreements negotiated between Italy and its neighbours on the question of migration. Although the EU has negotiated a number of EU wide readmission agreements, the absence of a clear regional framework for such agreements, including a lack of minimum human rights standards, has led to the creation of a number of bilateral readmission agreements between Italy and its neighbours which often do not appear to have human rights at their core.  Of particular concern is the Italy-Libya bilateral cooperation on migration. The 2008 agreement formalised cooperation to strengthen Libya`s capacity to intercept irregular migrants on Libyan territory or territorial waters, even though Libya’s record at effectively protecting the human rights of migrants was poor and reports of human rights abuses of migrants in Libya were frequent. In line with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights pronounced in the Hirsi case that such ‘push-backs’ by Italian authorities towards Libya were not acceptable, the agreement is currently suspended and the Hirsi-defined push-backs appear to have ceased. However, Italy-Libya migration cooperation was recently reinforced through a 2012 processo verbale. This new political framework however, contains very little concrete information on strengthening Libya’s normative framework and institutional capacities regarding the human rights of migrants.”

The Special Rapporteur also expressed concern that the current technical assistance in Search and Rescue capability being provided by Italy to Libya is in effect disguised migration control assistance:

 “Moreover, I have learnt of increased bilateral cooperation between Italian and Libyan authorities regarding search and rescue operations, including the provision of logistical and technical support to Libyan coast guards. Whilst increased search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean is undoubtedly of paramount importance, I have observed that there appears to be a strong focus on strengthening the capacities of the Libyan authorities to intercept migrants hoping to reach Europe, on both their territory and in their territorial waters, and return them to Libya. In this context, I warn EU member states against a progressive ‘externalisation’ of border control. In particular, considering the on-going difficulties of the Libyan authorities and the reports of human rights abuses against migrants on Libyan territory, this migration cooperation with Libya should not lead to any migrant being returned to Libyan shores against their will, either by Italian coast guards or Guardia di Finanza, or by Libyan coast guards with the technical or logistical support of their Italian counterparts.”

While acknowledging the important support provided to Italy by Frontex, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern over certain Frontex activities in Italy:

“[  ] I am aware that the key focus of FRONTEX remains information and intelligence gathering. In Italy FRONTEX thus works predominantly with the Guarda di Finanza and the Border Police to combat irregular migration, migrant smuggling and other migration related crimes. I remain concerned that these security objectives still appear to overshadow human rights considerations. For example, I have learned that FRONTEX officers conduct interviews with migrants in Italian detention facilities in order to gather information on their journeys. However these interviews are conducted without any external supervision. It is thus essential that effective human rights standards be integrated into all departments and agencies related to border management.”

The Special Rapporteur made the following “Preliminary Recommendations to the Italian government”:

  • “Ensure that migration cooperation with Libya does not lead to any migrant being returned to Libyan shores against their will, either by Italian authorities, or by Libyan authorities with the technical or logistical support of their Italian counterparts.
  • Prohibit the practice of informal automatic “push-backs” to Greece.
  • Guarantee the full access by international organisations, including UNHCR and IOM, civil society organisations and lawyers to all areas where migrants are held or detained to identify protection concerns
  • Develop a nation-wide regulatory framework, with respect for human rights at its core, for the organisation and management of all migrant detention centres.
  • Develop a simpler and fairer appeal system for expulsion and detention orders that integrates human rights considerations at each procedural step.
  • Develop a speedier identification system, including commencing the identification of foreign inmates whilst in prison, in order to make sure that detention of migrants for identification purposes is limited to the shortest time possible, with a maximum of 6 months.”

Similar concerns were expressed by the Special Rapporteur after his missions to Tunisia and Turkey:

Tunisia, 8 June 2012: “… Nevertheless, I learned that a large majority of regional migration initiatives coming from the EU continue to be focused on issues of border control, and do not consider important issues such as the facilitation of regular migration channels. Thus I encourage the European authorities to develop, in the context of the Migration and Mobility Partnership currently being negotiated, and in conjunction with bilateral agreements of the Member States of the Union, a more nuanced policy of migration cooperation with Tunisia, which moves beyond security issues to develop new initiatives in consultation and in real partnership with Tunisian authorities, which place at their core the respect, protection and promotion of the human rights of migrants….”

Turkey, 29 June 2012:  “… While the EU and Turkey have developed a close cooperation on migration issues, which has led to some notable positive developments, the assistance offered to Turkey regarding migration management appears to focus largely on securitising the borders and decreasing irregular migration to the European common territory through focusing on projects related to the detention and removal of migrants in Turkey and the increased monitoring of the Turkish border. Often neglected from the equation, is an equivalent emphasis on the human rights of those most vulnerable and most affected by the migration process: the migrants themselves….”

The Special Rapporteur will likely issue preliminary observations at the conclusion of the current mission to Greece on or after 3 December.

Click here (Italy), here (Tunisia), and here (Turkey) for the Special Rapporteur’s statements.

Click here for the web site for the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

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Filed under Aegean Sea, European Union, Frontex, Greece, Human Rights Council, Italy, Libya, Mediterranean, News, Statements, Tunisia, Turkey, United Nations

Question Raised Whether Migrant Boat Sank Off Lampedusa Last Week

Italian authorities are questioning survivor reports that the boat on which they were sailing from Tunisia actually sank or capsized near Lampedusa on 7 September.  Authorities have raised the possibility that the survivors were intentionally landed on the small island of Lampione, approximately 20 km west of Lampedusa, by a trafficker’s “mother ship” and that the traffickers then returned to Tunisia.  Some of the 56 survivors who were rescued from Lampione reported that their boat sank and they were forced to swim to the island, but Italian authorities have not yet found sufficient debris, bodies, or other evidence that would indicate that their boat sank.  While two bodies have been recovered recently, the locations of the recovered bodies are not consistent with the location where the migrant boat is reported to have sunk.  Authorities think the two bodies may be from different incidents that may have taken place recently.

Click here, here, here, and here for articles. (IT)

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High Death Toll in Turkish Migrant Boat Sinking Likely Caused by Persons Trapped Below Deck

Last week’s sinking of a migrant boat off the Turkish coast took place about 50 metres from shore.  The high death toll of 61 persons, including 31 children and infants, seems to have occurred in part because many of the boat’s passengers were either trapped or locked below the main deck of the boat.  Some media reports describe the boat, the “Sailor”, as a small fishing boat, but pictures of the accident scene suggest that the boat was probably a pleasure boat.  The boat struck underwater rocks causing it to sink on 6 September.  The boat reportedly departed from Ahmetbeyli and had traveled approximately 25 km along the coastline when it sank near the village of Menderes.  The migrants on board included Syrians, Iraqis, and others.  At least 49 survivors were able to swim ashore.  The boat’s Turkish captain and at least one crew member have been arrested and charged with human smuggling and reckless homicide.  The crew reportedly made no efforts to assist the passengers as the boat was sinking.

Click here, here, here, here, and here for articles.

 

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HRW Briefing Paper: Hidden Emergency-Migrant deaths in the Mediterranean

Human Rights Watch released a briefing paper on 16 August entitled “Hidden Emergency-Migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.”  The briefing paper, written by Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher with HRW, reviews recent events in the Mediterranean, provides updates on new developments, including the EUROSUR proposal and IMO guidelines that are under consideration, and makes recommendations for how deaths can be minimized.

Excerpts from the Briefing Paper:

“The death toll during the first six months of 2012 has reached at least 170. … Unless more is done, it is certain that more will die.

Europe has a responsibility to make sure that preventing deaths at sea is at the heart of a coordinated European-wide approach to boat migration, not a self-serving afterthought to policies focused on preventing arrivals or another maneuver by northern member states to shift the burden to southern member states like Italy and Malta.

With admirable candor, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said recently that Europe had, in its reaction to the Arab Spring, ‘missed the opportunity to show the EU is ready to defend, to stand up, and to help.’ Immediate, concerted efforts to prevent deaths at sea must be part of rectifying what Malmström called Europe’s ‘historic mistake.’

Europe’s Response to Boat Migration

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European countries most affected by boat migration—Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain—have saved many lives through rescue operations. But those governments and the European Union as a whole have focused far more effort on seeking to prevent boat migration, including in ways that violate rights. Cooperation agreements with countries of departure for joint maritime patrols, technical and financial assistance for border and immigration control, and expedited readmission of those who manage to set foot on European soil have become commonplace.

The EU’s border agency Frontex has become increasingly active through joint maritime operations, some of which have involved coordination with countries of departure outside the EU such as Senegal. Even though in September 2011 the EU gave Frontex an explicit duty to respect human rights in its operations and a role in supporting rescue at sea operations, these operations have as a primary objective to prevent boats from landing on EU member state territories. This has also prevented migrants, including asylum seekers, from availing themselves of procedural rights that apply within EU territory.

[***]

Italy had suspended its cooperation agreements with Libya in February 2011, and has indicated it will respect the European Court’s ruling and will no longer engage in push-backs. However, past experience suggests that an immigration cooperation agreement signed with the Libyan authorities in April 2012, the exact contents of which have neither been made public nor submitted to parliamentary scrutiny, is unlikely to give migrants’ human rights the attention and focus they need if those rights are to be properly protected.

[***]

Preventing Deaths in the Mediterranean

It may be tempting to blame lives lost at sea on unscrupulous smugglers, the weather, or simple, cruel fate. However, many deaths can and should be prevented. UNHCR’s recommendation during the Arab Spring to presume that all overcrowded migrant boats in the Mediterranean need rescue is a good place to start.

[***]

Recognizing the serious dimensions of the problem, specialized United Nations agencies such as the UNHCR and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), have been working to produce clear recommendations. These include establishing a model framework for cooperation in rescue at sea and standard operating procedures for shipmasters. The latter should include a definition of distress triggering the obligation to provide assistance that takes into account risk factors, such as overcrowding, poor conditions on board, and lack of necessary equipment or expertise. UNHCR has also proposed that countries with refugee resettlement programs set aside a quota for recognized refugees rescued at sea.

The IMO has also been pursuing since 2010 a regional agreement among Mediterranean European countries to improve rescue and disembarkation coordination, as well as burden-sharing. The project, if implemented successfully, would serve as a model for other regions. A draft text for a memorandum of understanding is under discussion. Negotiations should be fast-tracked with a view to implementation as quickly as possible.

If Europe is serious about saving lives at sea, it also needs to amend the draft legislation creating EUROSUR. This new coordinated surveillance system should spell out clearly the paramount duty to assist boat migrants at sea, and its implementation must be subject to rigorous and impartial monitoring. Arguments that such a focus would create a ‘pull factor’ and encourage more migrants to risk the crossing are spurious. History shows that people on the move, whether for economic or political reasons, are rarely deterred or encouraged by external factors.

[***]”

From the HRW press statement:

The “briefing paper includes concrete recommendations to improve rescue operations and save lives:

  • Improve search and rescue coordination mechanisms among EU member states;
  • Ensure that EUROSUR has clear guidelines on the paramount duty of rescue at sea and that its implementation is rigorously monitored;
  • Clarify what constitutes a distress situation, to create a presumption in favor of rescue for overcrowded and ill-equipped boats;
  • Resolve disputes about disembarkation points;
  • Remove disincentives for commercial and private vessels to conduct rescues; and
  • Increase burden-sharing among EU member states.”

Click here or here for HRW Briefing Paper.

Click here for HRW press statement.

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Filed under European Union, Frontex, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mediterranean, Reports, Spain, Tunisia