Rescuers help people in the sea after a boat carrying some 250 migrants crashed into rocks off the southern coast of Italy in April 2011.

(Brussels) – European Union member states’ justice and home affairs ministers meeting in Luxembourg should take forward a comprehensive and collective EU response to search and rescue needs in the central Mediterranean to urgently save lives.

“As the EU builds its walls higher and higher, migrants and refugees are increasingly taking to the Mediterranean waters in a desperate bid to reach safety and sanctuary in Europe,” said Nicolas J. Beger, European Institutions Office director at Amnesty International. “Tragically they are increasingly paying the highest cost, losing their lives at sea.”

One year on from the 2013 October shipwrecks in the central Mediterranean Sea, when over 500 people died, the EU’s collective response to saving lives in these waters has been little more than shameful, the organizations said. Italy is the only EU country to have responded, with Operation Mare Nostrum, deploying a significant part of its navy for search-and-rescue operations.  

However, even Italy’s best efforts have not been enough to prevent the dramatic loss of life this year, with indications that the country cannot sustain the operation long-term.

In 2014, so far over 165,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean. Tragically, more than 3,000 people are now estimated to have died at sea; although the real numbers are difficult to account for. Almost half of the people arriving are from repressive Eritrea and war-torn Syria, with an increasing number of women and children.

The European Commission’s end-of-August announcement to launch a new Frontex operation, Operation Triton, to support Italy’s efforts was seen as the first sign of an EU collective response to the ongoing tragic events in the central Mediterranean.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Operation Triton is unlikely to meet the real search-and-rescue needs to save lives.

“The limited range and border enforcement mandate of Operation Triton are no substitute for Mare Nostrum,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the EU is serious about preventing future tragedies, it needs to give Triton the mandate and resources to rescue boats throughout the Mediterranean.” 

Operation Triton, to be launched in November under Frontex, the EU agency for monitoring borders, would have to, at a minimum, match Operation Mare Nostrum in terms of scope, mandate, and financing. As it stands, Frontex has budgeted €3 million per month for the operation, compared to €9 million that Italy is spending on Operation Mare Nostrum on a monthly basis. In order to save lives, Operation Triton would also have to, as under Operation Mare Nostrum, operate in international waters and cover the entire Italian and Maltese search zones.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also urging the EU Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) ministers to take a long-term and holistic approach to managing migratory flows to Europe since the sharp rise in people crossing the Mediterranean is not only due to increased instability in the Middle East, wider conflicts, and the deterioration of the situation in Libya.

“Quite simply, people are being forced to board rickety and dangerous vessels given the EU’s security-based response to migration,” Beger said. “This includes the progressive sealing of the EU’s land borders and the absence of safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to reach the EU.”

Safe and legal routes to Europe could include an increase in resettlement quotas, wider access to humanitarian visas, and facilitating family reunification. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also urge EU member states to ensure responsibility-sharing for people rescued and disembarked, limiting the need for irregular secondary movements within the EU. This could be achieved by member states also bringing together family relations rather than applying the general rule under EU’s Dublin Regulation that the EU member state of first arrival is responsible for processing asylum claims.

“This week’s JHA Council will be a litmus test of the EU and the member states’ commitments and obligations under international law to save lives at sea,” said Sunderland. “The EU’s focus must first and foremost be on ensuring comprehensive and collective search and rescue measures that effectively and immediately protect and save the lives of migrants and refugees in the world’s most dangerous sea route.”