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Predictable, preventable and tragic loss of life in the Central Mediterranean

22 April 2021 saw yet another preventable tragedy at sea with more than 100 people perishing in a single incident. DRC repeats its plea for the EU to commit to search and rescue in the Mediterranean and for expanding safe pathways to protection to avoid desperate crossings and countless deaths at sea.

In the early morning the 21 April a local fisherman spotted a boat in distress in the Libyan search and rescue zone in the Central Mediterranean. They contacted the NGO hotline Alarm Phone, which immediately and repeatedly over the next two days relayed the GPS position of the boat and the desperate situation on board to all relevant state and non-state search and rescue actors.

According to observations and records by Alarm Phone and SOS Mediterranee, Libyan, Italian, Maltese authorities did not intervene. A Frontex surveillance flight, despite spotting the boat, did not remain at the scene. The next day, and after getting a late approval for rescue, only non-state actors OCEAN VIKING of SOS Mediterranee and three merchant vessels actively searched for the boat in distress. Despite their efforts, they arrived too late at the scene. Over 100 people died at sea.

The devastating loss of life at sea last week is not due to a string of tragic coincidences, but rather an entirely predictable and preventable outcome of the absence of any effective search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean. And it is the result of an actively pursued policy approach of outsourcing search and rescue to the ill-equipped Libyan Coast Guard, and of impeding rescue operation of non-state SAR actors through the criminalisation of the act of saving lives.

DRC Libya Country Director, Liam Kelly says: “Last week’s devastating event once again demonstrated the human costs of current policies in the Mediterranean. To outsource search and rescue operations to unsafe countries outside the EU is an unacceptable way of shying away from responsibility and it puts lives at risk. Libya is not a safe port and people returned there by the EU-funded and supported Libyan Coast Guard face arbitrary and indefinite detention in desperate conditions”.

DRC Italy Country Director, Giulia Spagna says: “130 lives lost at sea, again. They add up to the over 20,000 women, children and men lost in the Central Mediterranean Sea since 2014, over 450 in 2021 only. Another senseless tragedy while European States look away. For how long is Europe willing to pay this mortal price for the lack of safe pathways? How many more people need to die before European states live up to their responsibilities to ensure access to international protection and commit to establishing pathways for orderly migration?”

Assisting those in distress at sea is a moral duty and an obligation under international law. DRC supports the call for action by UNHCR and IOM and repeats our plea for the EU to commit to search and rescue in the Mediterranean, as well as for expanding safe pathways to protection to avoid desperate crossings and countless deaths at sea.

Further DRC reiterates the critical role that NGO search and rescue vessels are performing in the Central Mediterranean in the face of an increasingly restrictive environment of retaliation for their actions and punitive measures for the rescuers. EU Member States must allow NGO search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The criminalisation of essential and life-saving assistance to refugees and migrants must end.

Operational presence around the Mediterranean

Danish Refugee Council is present with protection programmes in Libya, Tunisia, Italy and Greece, and further collects data and provide independent and high-quality data, research, analysis and expertise on mixed migration including on the Central Mediterranean route through the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC).