A Malta patrol boat carrying 76 African immigrants, fleeing Libya, arrive in Malta on June 1, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

(Milan) – The deaths of scores of migrants and asylum seekers in the Mediterranean over the past 48 hours should prompt concerted European Union action to limit further deaths in the Mediterranean, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Sixty-one people, including 3 babies and 28 other children, are confirmed dead after their boat sank in the Aegean Sea off Turkey on September 6, 2012.  Forty-six people, whom Turkish authorities said were Syrians and Palestinians, were rescued. In addition, the Italian media reported that one man died and dozens are missing after another boat carrying migrants and asylum seekers sank off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy’s island in the southern Mediterranean, overnight on September 6. Italian forces rescued 56 people.

“The deaths of so many children should be a wake-up call to EU leaders,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Europe can and should do more to limit tragedies like these in the future.” Every year people fleeing persecution or seeking a better life attempt the dangerous sea crossing to Europe, often in unseaworthy boats and in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.  In 2011, an estimated 1,500 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean, the highest toll of any year in recorded history. With these recent tragedies, the estimated death toll for 2012 has climbed to over 300. The actual number may be higher, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch analysis of boat tragedies over the past two years suggests that European rescue operations in the Mediterranean are hampered by poor coordination, disputes over responsibility, disincentives for commercial vessels to conduct rescues, and an emphasis on border enforcement. Human Rights Watch set out its findings in a briefing paper published in August.

Both Frontex, the EU external borders agency, and a proposed new European External Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) include rescue at sea in their mandates, but lack specific guidelines and procedures to ensure that rescue is the paramount consideration in EU operations at sea.

Preventing deaths at sea needs to be at the heart of a coordinated European-wide approach to boat migration, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should also coordinate with Turkish authorities to ensure that there are no gaps in rescue coverage.

“Saving lives at sea should be at the heart of the EU’s approach to boat migration,” Sunderland said. “Overcrowded migrant boats should be considered to be in distress, and they should be rescued and taken to a safe point of disembarkation.”

The passengers on the boat that sank off the coast of Turkey were probably trying to reach the nearby Greek island of Samos. Greece has become a major gateway to Europe for migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa, primarily overland from Turkey. Arrivals by sea may increase as people and smugglers seek new routes, Human Rights Watch said. The Greek government recently requested greater assistance from Frontex to patrol the Aegean, where authorities have recorded higher numbers of arrivals by sea than in years past.

In Greece, migrants and asylum seekers face a dysfunctional asylum system, destitution, and xenophobic violence, Human Rights Watch said. Many attempt to travel further into Europe seeking better reception and integration prospects, often risking life and limb once again. 

More and more people fleeing the conflict in Syria may attempt the hazardous journey to Europe. Over 200,000 have fled Syria into neighboring countries, with 80,000 in Turkey. A Cypriot news agency reported that a Syrian family of seven, including two children, drowned in late August when their boat, which had left Latakia, Syria, sank off the coast of Cyprus. 

“Europe squabbled and dragged its feet last year when tens of thousands came by sea to escape chaos and conflict in North Africa,” Sunderland said. “It needs to live up to European values this time around, and do its utmost to ensure that those fleeing Syria reach safety.”