On the dock in Port Augusta, Sicily, weary sub-Saharan migrants await an initial health screening after three days at sea. (September 2014)

©2015 Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage

(Brussels) – The commitment by European Union heads of state to triple the capacity of Frontex operations in the Mediterranean is an important step towards preventing migrant deaths at sea, Human Rights Watch said today. But the EU, at its extraordinary summit meeting on April 23, 2015, remained vague about whether Frontex ships will be deployed off the Libyan coast where migrant boats are sinking.

“It’s not enough to increase EU boats at sea if they remain focused on protecting Europe’s borders rather than the people at sea who are dying trying to get there,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “EU leaders should give a clear search-and-rescue mandate to these operations.”

In an open letter and video message released on April 22, Roth also urged EU leaders to show more generosity in refugee resettlement and to ensure that any immigration or asylum cooperation with origin or transit countries does not engender or entrench human rights abuses.

Since the beginning of 2015, more than 1,750 migrants and asylum seekers have died at sea attempting to reach the EU, according to the International Organization for Migration – more than 30 times the number of deaths in the same period last year. Statistics from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, show that half of those arriving by sea to Italy, Malta, and Greece are from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan – all countries experiencing widespread violence and repression.

European governments also continue to emphasize the need to crack down on smugglers, destroy boats, and discourage departures, but ignore the factors driving many people to take to sea.   

“The many people fleeing violence and persecution will continue to risk their lives at sea until Europe establishes safe and legal migration channels,” Roth said.