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(London) – European Union ministers meeting in Luxembourg on June 5, 2014, should back stronger action to save migrant and refugee lives at sea. The ministers should also improve access to protection in Europe for refugees fleeing Syria and others fleeing persecution and abuse.

EU justice and home affairs ministers are to discuss the work of the European Commission-led Task Force Mediterranean, established in October 2013 in the wake of the tragic deaths of 366 boat migrants and refugees off the coast of Italy. With the notable exception of the Italian Navy’s Mare Nostrum operation, which has rescued or helped boats with more than 30,000 people reach Italy, the majority of the EU’s policy responses have focused on border enforcement and removal. An EU mechanism designed to improve surveillance at sea, EUROSUR, has yet to have any real impact on saving lives.

“Without stronger collective EU action, this summer risks being the Mediterranean’s drowning season,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “EU justice and home affairs ministers should give financial and material backing to Italy’s vital efforts to save migrants’ lives at sea.”

Every summer thousands of people fleeing war, persecution, and destitution risk their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. The number reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011, the year of the Arab uprisings. The record high number of crossings during the 2014 winter months suggests that this summer crossing season may also be one of the busiest on record. A Council of Europe expert report on boat deaths in the Mediterranean published on June 3, 2014, identifies ongoing gaps in rescue coordination as a key impediment to saving lives.

While there are no definite figures, between 20,000 and 25,000 people are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean in the past 20 years. Images of rows of coffins when over 360 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, died trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013 shocked the world.

Italy established Mare Nostrum as a direct response. The operation has already saved thousands of lives. But its high cost, estimated at €9 million (over US$12 million) a month, and the numbers of people rescued, who are brought to Italy for processing, make it unsustainable for Italy to manage alone. All EU member states and the EU itself need to share financial and legal responsibility as thousands more people seek refuge in Europe, Human Rights Watch said.

Increasingly, dangerous sea routes are becoming the only option for those desperate to reach the EU. Greece has built a fence on its land border with Turkey, making it much harder to cross and rerouting the flows of irregular migrants and asylum seekers, including those fleeing the conflict in Syria, to the Aegean Sea islands. Bulgaria is building a similar fence on its own border with Turkey. Greece and Bulgaria have engaged in “pushbacks” – summary returns – of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers to Turkey. Many people fleeing war, including in Syria, as well as those in search of a better life, are embarking on unsafe, overcrowded boats to reach what they hope will be safety in Europe. The difficulty of reaching EU countries through legal processes such as family reunification only exacerbates this trend.

The European Commission has proposed increased legal routes into the EU and called for greater solidarity among EU member states for hosting and processing asylum seekers. But the primary focus of the EU and its member states has been to keep migrants out. They have reinforced border controls, signed readmission agreements with neighboring countries to take back not only their citizens but anyone who passed through on the way to Europe, and strengthened measures to facilitate the removal of irregular migrants and to combat smuggling and trafficking.

The review of Task Force Mediterranean at the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on June 5 and 6 provides an opportunity for the EU’s member states to ensure that these efforts are balanced by an emphasis on saving lives and providing access to protection, Human Rights Watch said. That should include increasing legal routes to the EU and ensuring that people are not returned to places where they face persecution, torture, or other serious human rights abuses.

Greece currently holds the EU presidency, to be followed by Italy in July. Both countries are directly concerned by boat migration and should push for a common EU approach that ensures access to protection for all those who need it, Human Rights Watch said. Other EU countries, regardless of their geographical location, should show solidarity in dealing with what is a European challenge and responsibility.

EU ministers should also do much more for Syrians and Palestinians fleeing the ever-worsening war in Syria, Human Rights Watch said. Of the 2.7 million people who have fled the war in Syria, 3 percent have sought protection in EU member states. With the exception of Germany, which has pledged more than 10,000 places, offers of resettlement places by EU members have been extremely limited.

With the number of registered refugees from Syria in Jordan nearing 600,000, topping 765,000 in Turkey and approaching 1.1 million in Lebanon – nearly one-quarter of the population – EU governments should do their part, Human Rights Watch said. EU ministers should pledge to resettle many more people from Syria, ensure a speedy and fair examination of their asylum claims regardless of their first EU point of entry, and provide them with adequate reception conditions upon their arrival.

“There’s a lot of EU hand-wringing over Syria, but when it comes to offering protection, most EU governments are reluctant to act,” Ward said. “More settlement places for Syrians and increased legal routes for migration will save lives.”


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