Call for more Mediterranean search and rescue capability


UN agencies want search and rescue stepped up in the central Mediterranean in the wake of a shipwreck that claimed the lives of 45 migrants and refugees, including five children.

A boat, carrying over 80 people sank on 17 August after its engine exploded off Zwara in western Libya. Thirty-seven survivors were rescued by local fishermen and were detained when they disembarked.

The tragedy is the largest recorded shipwreck off Libyan this year, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

More than 300 migrants and refugees died while crossing from Libya to Europe this year with actual fatalities probably higher.

UNHCR and IOM want a review of countries’ approach to the situation, stressing an “urgent need” to strengthen current search and rescue capacity.

“We fear without an increase in search and rescue capacity the risk of another disaster similar to incidents that saw large loss of life in the central Mediterranean prior to the launch of Mare Nostrum,” they said.

Mare Nostrum was an Italian operation that assisted with rescue of at least 150 000 refugees and migrants. It was launched in October 2013 and ended operations a year later.

The UN agencies are concerned about delays in rescue and disembarkation and called on states to swiftly respond to distress calls and provide a port of safety for people rescued at sea.

“Where commercial vessels are the nearest boat capable of rescue, they should be promptly provided with a safe port for disembarking rescued passengers,” the UN agencies said, adding the vessels should not be instructed to return people to Libya, where they are at risk of ongoing conflict, human rights violations and arbitrary detention post-disembarkation.

They also called for lifting legal and logistical restrictions on NGO vessels crucial in saving lives at sea amid a sharp reduction in European state-led efforts.

UNHCR and IOM urged Libyan authorities to act against smugglers and traffickers preying on vulnerable migrants and refugees.

“This should include disrupting and ending smuggling rings led by criminal groups to prevent further exploitation and abuse,” they said.