Migrants from North Africa, fleeing the unrest in Tunisia, arrive in southern Italy on March 7, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

“Aman.” a 29-year-old Eritrean, had just described his arduous journey to Europe when I heard the news about hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean. He, like many others I spoke with last week in Dresden, risked their lives last summer crossing from war-torn Libya to Italy in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats. All were rescued by Italian Navy ships during the massive search-and-rescue operation Mare Nostrum. 

Many others have died in the Mediterranean, now undoubtedly the deadliest migration route   in the world. An estimated 300 women, men, and children, crammed into rubber dinghies on a stormy, wintry sea, died on February 8. Twenty-nine of them perished from exposure even though they had been rescued. It is not just the cruelty of the elements, the smugglers, or fate that cost them their lives. Europe shares responsibility for their deaths.

With continuing crises around the world and chaos in Libya, there is no doubt that thousands will take the “death boats” in the coming months. The rise of extremist groups including the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Libya and terrorism in Europe may reinforce the EU’s security approach to its borders. But letting people drown is a moral failure whatever the justification. The EU needs to act decisively, now, to avert further tragedies.

The EU response to dangerous boat migration has focused primarily on law enforcement, surveillance, and border control, a point repeatedly made at meetings of the EU Council. There is shamefully little political will to help people fleeing persecution and abuse avoid the dangers of the journey in the first place. The best way to do this is to create safe and legal channels into the EU while stepping up its rescue efforts for those who feel they have no choice.

After the Lampedusa tragedy of October 2013, in which at least 366 people lost their lives while trying to reach Europe, the EU pledged to do more to prevent deaths in the Mediterranean. Speeches were made, meetings were held, a task force made recommendations. Yet these recent tragedies underscore that after faltering progress, things are moving in the wrong direction. Almost a year-and-a-half and upwards of 3,800 deaths at sea later by UN estimates, the EU has failed to make a genuine commitment to rescue at sea and has made virtually no progress toward creating safe and legal channels into the EU.

In the wake of the October 2013 tragedy, the then-EU home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, called for a European search-and-rescue operation spanning the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights and the director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have all recently repeated the call.  All Mediterranean countries have search-and-rescue responsibilities in their designated area. But Libya is clearly not able to uphold its obligations, and front-line EU countries like Italy and Malta should be able to count on the support of the EU as a whole.

But it was Italy alone that mounted Mare Nostrum, sending naval ships into international waters off of Libya to respond to migrant boats in distress. The Italian Navy brought safely to shore at least half of the roughly 218,000 people who reached the EU by sea in 2014. According to UNHCR, around 3,500 people died last year in the Mediterranean. How many more lives would have been lost without Mare Nostrum?

For its efforts, the Italian government faced regional as well as domestic criticism that it was encouraging boat migration. The fact that half of those who made the sea journey are fleeing human rights abuse in Eritrea and war in Syria gives lie to that argument. So does the fact that over 7,000 have attempted the crossing since the beginning of the year, after Mare Nostrum had ended,  in the most adverse conditions and without any certainty of rescue, with the International Organization for Migration calculating that almost 4,000 made the crossing since  February 13 alone.

Ultimately unable to sustain alone the costs and responsibility of rescue at sea, Italy shut down Mare Nostrum in November. In its place, the EU tasked its external border control agency Frontex with a far smaller operation on a third of Mare Nostrum’s monthly budget. While vessels participating in the Frontex mission, Triton, have been involved in rescues over the past several months, the Italian government – not Frontex vessels -- has  been responsible for saving  more than two-thirds of the 19,000 people rescued since it began.

The most recent deaths are a devastating demonstration of the operation’s limited resources and geographic scope. The scaled down Triton operation was not up to the task of responding to the distress call from the rubber dinghies. The main Frontex vessel was unavailable, reportedly docked in Malta for maintenance. And as Frontex officials are at pains to repeat, the agency’s primary mandate is border enforcement, not search-and-rescue.

The European home affairs commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has called on EU governments to support concrete proposals, including allowing asylum applications for EU countries through embassies and consulates and issuing more humanitarian visas, to little avail. There appears to be little appetite for easing restrictions on family reunification, which could also help those in need to reach the EU safely.

The European Commission and the UNHCR have long appealed to EU countries to establish and increase refugee resettlement programs. Fifteen EU countries offer no resettlement whatsoever. Germany has been the most generous, with 5,000 regular resettlement spaces and an extra offer to resettle 30,000 refugees from Syria. All other EU countries combined have pledged to take only around 6,000 Syrians. The United Kingdom has accepted 90.

To reach Germany, Aman fled repression in Eritrea, made his way through Sudan to Egypt, and was tortured by traffickers in Sinai until he was able to pay a ransom for his release.  A charity group helped him get to Ethiopia, but from there he set off again, this time through Sudan to Libya, where he boarded a boat to Italy. It should not be so difficult to find refuge.

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