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The EU and its member states must do more to prevent migrant deaths at sea if they are to deliver on their humanitarian ethos – writes Judith Sunderland.

Two boat tragedies in the Mediterranean last week cost the lives of an estimated 140 people within the space of 48 hours. Men, women and children. Asylum seekers and economic migrants. Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Tunisians. Sixty-one people, including three infants and 28 other children, died when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea off Turkey on September 6. Forty-six people, whom Turkish authorities said were Syrians and Palestinians, were rescued. Another 80 people are presumed dead after a migrant boat, presumably from Tunisia, disappeared off the coast of Lampedusa - Italy's island in the southern Mediterranean - overnight on September 6. Italian forces rescued 56 people.

These recent tragedies are a reminder of the shocking number of boat migrants who die each year in the Mediterranean. In 2011, an estimated 1,500 people lost their lives in the Med, the highest toll of any year in recorded history. Conflict and economic collapse in North Africa created circumstances that led more and more people to embark on even more dangerous crossings. But boat migration by those fleeing persecution or poverty is a regular yearly phenomenon and so too are deaths at sea. With last week's tragedies, the estimated death toll for 2012 has climbed above 300. The actual number may be higher.

The immediate causes include drowning, exposure, thirst, adverse weather conditions, mechanical problems, human error and despicable practices by smugglers. The European countries most affected by boat migration - Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain - have saved many lives through rescue operations. But improving rescue efforts could help save more. The truth is that European Union governments on the Mediterranean rim and the EU as a whole have focused far more effort on border control, including in ways that violate rights, than on preventing deaths at sea.

This harsh logic was on clear display last year, when member states squabbled and dragged their feet as tens of thousands came by sea to escape the chaos and conflict in North Africa. European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has said, with remarkable candour, that Europe made a "historic mistake" in its failure to show that it is ready to "defend, to stand up, and to help".

The fact that many Syrians were on the boat that sank off the coast of Turkey reminds us that greater numbers of people fleeing the conflict in that country may attempt the hazardous sea journey to Europe. The passengers on that ill-fated boat 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 appear to be on the increase, however, as the crackdown at the land border has made that crossing more difficult. A Cypriot news agency reported in late August that a Syrian family of seven, including two children, drowned when their boat which had left Latakia, Syria, sank off the coast of Cyprus.

The EU needs to live up to European values this time around and do its utmost to ensure that those fleeing Syria reach safety and a meaningful chance to apply for asylum. We cannot mourn only the deaths of asylum seekers, though. None of those who perished last week deserved to die, regardless of their nationality or reasons for trying to reach Europe. Saving lives and preventing deaths needs to be at the heart of a European-wide approach to boat migration. European institutions and EU member states need to take concrete steps to minimize tragedies in the Mediterranean by addressing problems in coordination among coastal nations and disputes over responsibility and where people rescued at sea should disembark – while providing the disincentives for commercial vessels to rescue people at sea; like facing criminal charges for abetting illegal immigration.

Frontex, the EU external borders agency, and a proposed new European External Border Surveillance System should have clear and specific guidelines as well as procedures to ensure that rescue is the paramount consideration in European operations at sea. The moral and financial burden for rescuing lives at sea should be borne by all of the continent's nations, not just those on Europe's southern borders. Above all, base politics should not be allowed to stand in the way of humanitarian imperatives.

Judith Sunderland is a senior Europe researcher at the Human Rights Watch campaign group.

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