As more than 200 people drowned in the Mediterranean this weekend, four different NGO search and rescue ships were docked in European ports — because of legal restrictions.
On Sunday, a small, packed, rubber dinghy capsized off the east coast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. While 41 people were rescued, some 100 people were reported missing at sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
On Friday, 103 people — including three babies — died in a similar shipwreck, from which just 16 survivors were rescued.
Yet, at the time of the shipwrecks, four NGO rescue ships were docked around Europe, reported CNN, unable to sail because of rows over migrant rescue.
Three are reportedly being held in Malta: Lifeline, pending investigation; Seefuchs, run by German NGO Sea-Eye, while its flag status is investigated; and Sea-Watch 3, which is being held, it says, “without any legal ground."
Meanwhile the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) ship Aquarius is docked in Marseille because, it tweeted, of “current politics at sea, and the criminalisation of NGO search & rescue vessels.”
The Aquarius was at the centre of a recent European row, and was forced to drift at sea for a week with over 600 people on board — including children, pregnant women, and chemical burn victims — because neither Italy nor Malta would let them dock. Eventually, Spain took them in.
“While we are hindered from leaving port, people are drowning,” said Pia Klemp, captain of Sea-Watch 3, in a statement on Monday. “This is absolutely unacceptable. Any further death at sea is on the account of those preventing rescue from taking place."
“How many more shipwrecks will it take before Europe, once again, realises that saving lives at sea must remain non-negotiable?” she asked.
The most recent shipwrecks bring the total number of deaths this year to over 1,000 people — prompting concerns that growing crackdowns against migration are leading human traffickers to take increased risks in sending people to sea.
The IOM said smugglers are taking migrants out “in completely unsafe vessels.”
“Smugglers are exploiting the desperation of migrants to leave before there are further crackdowns on Mediterranean crossings by Europe,” said Othman Belbeisi, the IOM’s chief of mission in Libya.
The Italian government, driven by its new interior minister Matteo Salvini, is one of the leaders of the migration crackdown. And, according to aid agencies, a smaller number of migrants are arriving in Italy this year.
But a higher proportion of those trying to reach Italy are dying during the journey, and there are concerns the crackdown is to blame. This year, just half of those leaving Libya have successfully reached Europe, a drop of 86% on last year, according to the Guardian.
Meanwhile, 4.5% are dying or going missing, an increase from 2.3% last year. And in June, that figure reportedly reached nearly 10% — the highest proportion to date.
Some 44% have been collected and brought back by the Libyan coastguard — up from 12% last year — and amounting to around 10,000 people in total. This weekend, close to 1,000 people were returned to Libya by its coastguard, which intercepts small crafts as they set out, according to the IOM.
It said that those returned are transferred by Libyan authorities to detention centres — which has raised even greater concern among agencies.
“Migrants returned by the coastguard should not automatically be transferred to detention and we are deeply concerned that the detention centres will yet again be overcrowded and that living conditions will deteriorate with the recent influx of migrants,” said Belbeisi.
Concerns have already been raised by the international community about the situation for migrants in Libya and in its detention centres. An Oxfam report from May 2017, for example, found that migrants in Libya face kidnap, rape, torture, slave labour, and sexual violence. Human Rights Watch reported “horrific abuse” of migrants at the hands of both smugglers and detention centre guards.
The United Nations has called the conditions in Libya’s detention centres “inhuman.”
NGOs last year accused European governments of effectively sealing people into these dangerous conditions by failing to give them safe passage into Europe — meaning they have to choose between the violent detention centres and the deadly Mediterranean crossing.
This year is now the fourth year in a row that more than 1,000 people have died trying to cross the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.