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Endless Tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea

Europe’s Commitment to Rescue Would Save Lives

Migrants in a wooden boat are waiting to be rescued by a ship from the Spanish NGO Open Arms in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, March 5, 2022.  © 2022 Antonio Sempere/Sipa USA/AP Photo

Last week, a four-year-old Syrian girl named Loujin died after spending days with others adrift on a boat that had set off from Lebanon. Yesterday, we learned of three more Syrian children, one-, two-, and twelve-years-old, and three women dying during their ill-fated boat journey from Turkey towards Europe.

In both cases, rescues came too late.

More than 1,200 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2022, adding to the horrifying tally of almost 25,000 deaths since 2014. While the endless tragedy has many causes, the decision of European governments to prioritize border control over sea rescue is central.

The European Union has abdicated its responsibility to ensure search and rescue in the Mediterranean. No EU ships actively patrol anywhere near where most boats enter into distress. Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard, conducts aerial surveillance in service of interceptions and returns, not rescues. Despite overwhelming evidence of horrific detention and abuse of migrants in Libya, the EU supports the Libyan forces’ efforts to detect boats and pull people back. EU governments and institutions have largely turned a blind eye to unlawful and dangerous pushbacks of boats to Turkey by Greece in the Aegean Sea. Alarm Phone, a hotline for migrants and refugees in distress at sea, consistently reports failure of the Maltese authorities to respond to cases in their vast search and rescue area (SAR).

While the need to rescue people at sea remains deeply ingrained in the seafarer ethos, as well as an obligation under maritime law, uncertainty over when and where they could disembark rescued persons, and the potential costs of deviations and delays serve as disincentives to merchant vessels to do their duty.

More tragedies are on the horizon.

According to Alarm Phone, a boat carrying around 250 people that left Lebanon a week ago is adrift right now in the Maltese SAR, its occupants out of food and water. If not rescued soon, they face exposure, dehydration, and debilitation, if not death.

Deterrence by drowning and dehydration is abominable. In the absence of meaningful safe and legal channels, and the persistence of conflicts, rights violations, and hardships that push people to flee, EU states and institutions should act now to protect life at sea and ensure predictable disembarkation in places of safety.

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