UNHCR calls for more robust search-and-rescue operation on Mediterranean

Ukrainians spare no efforts to help compatriots UNHCR chief calls on European Union to urgently establish a search-and-rescue operation similar in scale and reach to Italy's now ended Mare Nostrum operation.

A line of hearses wait at the harbor on Lampedusa Island to collect bodies of people who lost their lives in this week's high seas tragedy.  © UNHCR/F. Fossi

GENEVA, February 12 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Thursday called on the European Union (EU) to urgently change its approach to dealing with irregular crossings of the Mediterranean Sea and make saving lives the topmost priority.

"There can be no doubt left after this week's events that Europe's Operation Triton is a woefully inadequate replacement for Italy's Mare Nostrum," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, referring to the death of at least 300 people who were trying to reach Europe from Libya on four dinghies. "The focus has to be about saving lives. We need a robust search-and-rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean, not only a border patrol."

Last year, the number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean on smugglers' boats rose dramatically and many of them were fleeing conflicts or persecution in Syria, the Horn of Africa and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In all, at least 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean and 3,500 lives were lost.

Italy, following heavy loss of life in two incidents on the high seas in October 2013, launched the Mare Nostrum operation - rescuing tens of thousands of people. UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concern about the ending of Mare Nostrum late last year without a similar European search-and-rescue operation to replace it. Last November, the EU border agency Frontex launched Operation Triton, which focuses on border surveillance but can contribute to rescue efforts.

Concerned that Europe's response to such tragedies is not to step up its rescue efforts, but to phase them out, Guterres called on the EU to urgently establish a search-and-rescue operation similar in scale and reach to Mare Nostrum. "If not, it is inevitable that many more people will die trying to reach safety in Europe," he warned.

UNHCR has called repeatedly on European governments to address the problem of people fleeing wars and trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean, with a view to reducing losses of life at sea via improved surveillance and better search and rescue.

It has also encouraged more focus on addressing the root causes of the population movements including more emphasis on political solutions to conflict, better opportunities for refugees in countries neighbouring conflict zones, the provision of safe and legal alternatives to dangerous boat journeys, and strengthened systems for disembarkation and for identifying those who are refugees and those who are not.