Drowning people must be rescued, whether you’re Italy or the EU

31 October 2014

Drowning people must be rescued, whether you’re Italy or the EU

On 1st November the Italian government will cease its large-scale commitment of its own navy to the rescue of refugees threatened by death as their ships founder in Italian waters. Eight European Union member states, including the Netherlands, will take over some of the tasks needed, but will have to do what they can with a third of the money previously available. The operation, moreover, will be performed under the aegis of Frontex, the service responsible for guarding the EU’s exterior frontier, and as such is not specifically directed at saving the lives of drowning people. Amnesty International is hugely concerned about the situation now arising. The SP shares these concerns. Italy must fulfil its international obligations and continue to perform active rescue operations. The member states and the European Commission must now step up the pressure on Italy and not wait for the next shipwreck with hundreds of victims. At the same time a structural solution must be sought, in cooperation with Italy, for the enormous numbers of migrants and refugees looking to enter the EU via Italy. Work must at last be started on the establishment of a European asylum centre.

by Dennis de Jong and Sharon Gesthuizen

On 1st November the Italian programme Mare Nostrum, expressly aimed at saving people’s lives in the Mediterranean Sea, comes to an end. Between 100,000 and 150,000 lives have been saved by it in the past year, though 2,500 people died despite the programme. The operation cost €9 million a month, and Italy says that it can no longer afford this. This is strange reasoning. Italy is party to the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), according to which every country is responsible for the search for and rescue of people at risk of drowning in specified waters. It was the aim that for example the Mediterranean Sea would be divided amongst all countries bordering it, so that there would be no area for which no-one felt responsible. Italy took responsibility for a large region between its own territory and North Africa. That the Italian government says that it’s strapped for cash makes no difference to its duties under the SAR.

Mare Nostrum covered all of the areas of the Mediterranean Sea for which Italy is responsible. The new operation involving eight member states, under the aegis of Frontex, covers only the waters to a distance of thirty kilometres from the coast. Furthermore, this is mainly to do with border control. Frontex was never intended to be a rescue operation. This means that refugees beyond the thirty kilometre zone can’t count on special attempts to rescue them, but instead will have to rely on coincidentally passing ships. It’s well-known that many captains are not eager to pick up refugees at sea, even though this is their legal duty. So the coming months threaten the deaths of even more victims – many more – than have died in the recent past.

The British government has even announced that it will not be taking part in the limited Frontex operation. The stated reason is that if refugees know that they will be rescued, still more people will risk the crossing. How cynical can you get?

The tragedy surrounding Mare Nostrum shows how much is wrong with the existing European asylum system. Italy is trying to shake off its responsibilities, because – it says – it cannot cope with the enormous influx of refugees and migrants. Admittedly, the numbers involved are indeed huge, but Italy is hardly a dirt poor country. Nevertheless the member states will have to do something. Previously the SP has proposed that a European asylum centre should be established within the EU, not far from its external borders. The Dutch government has still not responded to this suggestion in any way. The European Commission has expressed an interest, but is yet to come up with a proposal. It’s high time that the next step were taken. Italy must resume saving lives, but the other member states must recognise that the European Union’s current asylum system is failing and that new measures, such as a European asylum centre, are needed. Only in this way can we prevent the occurrence of fresh record numbers of victims.

Dennis de Jong is a Member of the European Parliament for the SP. Sharon Gesthuizen is a Member of the Dutch national Parliament and the party’s parliamentary spokeswoman on immigration and asylum issues.

Photo: Orazio Esposito (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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