As many as 700 migrants are feared dead in the wake of a boat accident south of the Mediterranean coast of Lampedusa on Sunday. According the testimony given to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the small craft was capsized when the migrants on board shifted to one side, trying to gain the attention of a large passing merchant vessel that they hoped might rescue them.
Yesterday’s accident brings the total number of migrants who have died making the crossing from Libya to Italy to over 1,000 in the last two weeks. It is estimated that between 350 – 400 people were killed in a similar accident last week. Nearly 1600 migrants making the dangerous passage by boat to southern Europe have already died in 2015.
An emergency meeting of European Union leaders was called for today in the aftermath of the tragedy to discuss the increasing need for action to address the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Despite the existence of regulations within individual countries, the EU lacks a uniform overarching migration policy. Southern European leaders have called for increased coordination between member states to prevent the loss of more live, while Francois Hollande called for increased surveillance and Swedish Minister of Justice and Migration Morgan Johansson demanded that EU countries make more efforts to provide safe haven for refugees.
Italy initiated its “Mare Nostrum” program in the aftermath of two tragic incidents in 2013, when about 600 migrants died in two separate accidents off the coast of Lampedusa. Under the initiative, Italian ships patrolled the area between the Italian coast and the shores of North Africa. In November of 2014, the EU voted to replace Mare Nostrum with the less-expensive Triton initiative. EU critics of Mare Nostrum claimed that the program created too many extra costs and would encourage more migrants to make the journey across the Mediterranean in hopes of being rescued.
Unfortunately, this failure to continue the more extensive Mare Nostrum program has had deadly consequences for migrants. Triton monitors the sea 30 miles off the European coast, leaving large swaths of the Mediterranean, including the waters off the northern coast of Libya, unprotected. German Federal Government Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration, Aydan Özuguz criticized the decision, saying that it was an “illusion” to believe that halting the Mare Nostrum program would discourage migrants from fleeing to Europe.
Representatives from UNHCR have called for a strengthening of search and rescue operations off the southern coast of Europe, and legislation that would open more legal channels for migration to Europe.
In a statement UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said, “This disaster confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe. Otherwise people seeking safety will continue to perish at sea. But it also points to the need for a comprehensive European approach to address the root causes that drive so many people to this tragic end. I hope the EU will rise to the occasion, fully assuming a decisive role to prevent future such tragedy.