UNHCR urges Europe to recreate a robust search and rescue operation on Mediterranean, as Operation Triton lacks resources and mandate needed for saving lives

In light of this week's boat tragedies on the Mediterranean, and the hundreds of refugee and migrant lives that have been lost, UNHCR is today calling on the European Union to urgently change its approach to dealing with sea crossings with a view to ensuring that saving lives is the top-most 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. "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."

Crossings of the Mediterranean by migrants are age old, but 2014 saw a dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees undertaking this dangerous journey - spurred by conflicts in Syria, the Horn of Africa and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In all at least 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, and 3500 lives were lost. Italy, which had seen a major boat disaster off its southern Island of Lampedusa in October 2013, responded by launching its Mare Nostrum operation - almost certainly saving many hundreds of lives. UNHCR has repeatedly expressed concerns over the ending of Mare Nostrum without a similar European search-and-rescue operation to replace it. On 1 November, Frontex launched Joint Operation Triton, which primarily focuses on border surveillance, though it may contribute to rescue efforts.

Concerned that Europe's response to this growing tragedy is not to step up its rescue efforts, but to phase them out, Mr. 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."

This week's toll of dead or missing of at least 300 people has involved four boats, each carrying around 100 people, and all departing from Libya. 29 deaths were from hypothermia, which in some instances appears to have occurred aboard Operation Triton vessels. One of the vessels has still not been found.

UNHCR has called repeatedly on European governments to work in concert to address the problem of people fleeing wars via 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 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 distinguishing those who are refugees and those who are not.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Geneva, Melissa Fleming on mobile +41 79 557 9122
  • In Lampedusa, Carlotta Sami on mobile +39 335 679 4746
  • In Geneva, Babar Baloch on mobile +41 79 557 9106

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