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Migrants and refugees on an overcrowded rubber boat during a rescue by the Spanish NGO Open Arms in the Mediterranean Sea, Feb. 12, 2021. © AP Photo/Bruno Thevenin

(Milan) – European Union governments have a collective responsibility to protect the lives and rights of people on the move along the central Mediterranean route, Human Rights Watch said today. EU heads of state will discuss migration policy at the next European Council meeting, on June 24-25, 2021, in Brussels.

“It is shameful and tragic that EU countries can’t agree on something as fundamental as saving lives at sea,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “People are drowning while European leaders squabble.”

In a 20-point action plan released on June 16, 2021, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) outline steps the EU and its member states should take to save lives at sea, ensure predictable disembarkation and relocation of people rescued, and promote safe and legal pathways for refugees and migrants. The EU should reset its cooperation with Libya to focus on protecting rights and ensuring accountability for abuses, the organizations said.

An estimated 20,000 people have died or disappeared in the central Mediterranean in the last decade. According to the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, in 2021 alone, at least 664 died or were reported missing as of mid-June. To avoid responsibility for rescue, the EU since March 2019 has withdrawn ships from areas where unseaworthy boats carrying migrants and refugees are most likely to be. Planes coordinated by Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, and Operation Irini, an EU military mission, regularly pass information to authorities to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept boats carrying migrants and refugees.

The Libya Coast Guard has intercepted and returned to Libya more than 11,700 people so far during 2021, including as many as 1,000 on June 12 alone. On June 15 the NGO Alarm Phone said around 200 people rescued by the Vos Triton, a commercial vessel, were subsequently transferred to a Libyan vessel and taken back to Libya. There, they risk being detained in nightmarish detention centers and experiencing abysmal conditions, violence, and forced labor.

To protect lives and rights at sea, EU institutions and member states should take concrete measures to prevent the return of migrants and refugees to Libya, including by coordinating rescues, even in international waters within the Libyan search-and-rescue region. Member states should move swiftly to adopt a clear, predictable system for ensuring that those rescued can disembark in a safe place – which Libya is not – as well as relocation arrangements for member states to share responsibility equitably.

The EU should reinstate active search and rescue operations and ensure that nongovernmental rescue groups are able to carry out their lifesaving activities without harassment or unfair impediment, the organizations said. Three rescue ships operated by nongovernmental groups are currently blocked in Italian ports for administrative reasons, with the Geo Barents, run by Médécins Sans Frontières, currently the only rescue ship operating in the central Mediterranean. It is waiting for authorization to land within a safe port with more than 400 people rescued on its first mission.

The European Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, issued in September 2020, acknowledged the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean and called for better coordination among member states, including to establish a predictable relocation system. In keeping with the pact’s overall focus on sealing borders, though, the Commission pursued measures to regulate nongovernmental rescue efforts rather than to address state failures.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have both said that the EU should urgently adopt migration policies and cooperation arrangements that fully respect human rights and human dignity.

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