The number of people dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean has soared over the five weeks since European leaders effectively criminalized NGO search and rescue operations, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The leading search and rescue organization said it has not been able to carry out missions since the Italian and Maltese governments closed their ports to its rescue ship, the Aquarius, on June 10.
Since then, more than 600 people have gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean, more than the total number for the rest of 2018 combined, according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
An EU spokesperson said the rise in fatalities was “worrying” but underlined the need to pursue its existing policies on external migration.
Dr David Beversluis, on board the Aquarius, which has been docked in Marseille since leaving Spain, told WikiTribune: “We are concerned that for the last few weeks there really hasn’t been any NGOs working in the rescue zones.”
He said it was “extremely frustrating” to be stuck in port waiting for things to be more clear.
“We would like to be out there doing rescue work, trying to save lives, but instead, with the criminalization of NGOs we’re stuck with little option, unless options are put forward by European leaders.”
In an email, an MSF spokesperson also referred to what they see as the “criminalization” of NGO search and rescue operations.
“That’s referring to things like impounding/investigating NGOs, accusations of people smuggling, being denied entry into ports of safety – all while we operate under maritime law and under the direction of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.”
The Aquarius spent a day in limbo with 629 rescued migrants and refugees on board, including 123 unaccompanied minors, after Italy’s new government denied it entry to their ports as part of a more hardline stance on immigration.
Spain’s new government invited the Aquarius to dock in Valencia on June 11, after Malta also denied the ship permission to dock.
EU leaders met at a summit in Brussels at the end of June and agreed in principle to build “disembarkation platforms.” This was to better process migrants and refugees in “transit” countries outside European borders and to boost support for the Libyan coast guard.
In a statement released on June 29, European Council President Donald Tusk said: “We have sent a clear message to all vessels, including those of NGOs, operating in the Mediterranean, that they must respect the law and must not obstruct the operation of the Libyan Coast Guard.”
The EU has been supporting the Libyan coast guard since June 2016, with an agreement that it will intercept migrants and refugees and return them to North Africa where they are offered assistance to return.
David Beversluis said pushing responsibility onto the Libyan coast guard was not the “appropriate response” from European leaders.
The coast guard itself has received training and monitoring assistance from the EU, but after they intercept migrants and refugees they take them to detention centers.
Here, Beversluis said there was “pretty clear evidence of abuse.”
He repeated concerns that these interceptions did not discourage migrants from attempting the crossing.
“We’ve had some people on board who tell us stories about how [they have been picked up by coast guard and] many months later they’ve been able to come out of detention centres and attempt another crossing.”
In response to WikiTribune’s inquiries, a European Commission spokesperson said the surge in drownings during these past few weeks in the Mediterranean was a “worrying development.”
The spokesperson said the drownings underlined the need to further increase cooperation on search and rescue.
“And questions related to disembarkation and to continue further developing our measures to counter the criminal networks that take advantage of people’s despair.”