UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie have called for increased efforts by European nations to contribute to the rescue of irregular migrants in peril on the high seas and warned about the scale of the crisis in the Mediterranean.
Their call came during a visit on Sunday to the naval rescue headquarters in Malta, on a weekend in which new boat sinkings were being reported off Egypt and Libya claiming more innocent lives. A UNHCR press release said Jolie and Guterres met three survivors of one of the tragedies, who had been rescued by a commercial vessel and brought to Malta by the Maltese authorities.
In the Maltese capital of Valletta, Jolie also visited Syrian refugee families who survived a similar devastating boat tragedy last October. They included a couple from Damascus whose three small children perished during the crossing, and a doctor from Aleppo whose wife and three-year-old daughter drowned. Half of those arriving in Europe by boat are refugees from Syria and Eritrea.
Guterres and Jolie thanked the naval authorities for their part in successful rescue operations that have saved many lives. More than 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing attempting the Mediterranean crossing this year alone, including over 2,200 since the start of June.
“We all need to wake up to the scale of this crisis,” Jolie stressed. “There is a direct link between the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere and the rise in deaths at sea in the Mediterranean. We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children’s lives on crowded, unsafe vessels; it is the overwhelming desire to find refuge.”
The actress added that the situation in the Mediterranean was part of a bigger problem of soaring numbers of people displaced by conflicts around the world. “Unless we address the root causes of these conflicts the numbers of refugees dying or unable to find protection will continue to rise,” she stressed.
Some 130,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year, more than double the 60,000 recorded in 2013. Italy has received over 118,000 arrivals, most of them rescued at sea by Italy under its naval operation, Mare Nostrum.
As the European Union and member states search for a better framework for responding to the worsening situation in the Mediterranean, Guterres said: “We don’t have many chances to get this right. Europe’s response needs to be a truly collective effort, one that offers safer ways to find protection while maintaining a strong capacity to rescue people at sea. If it fails, many more lives will be lost at Europe’s doorstep.”
As part of a package based on solidarity and responsibility sharing amongst states, UNHCR is calling for legal, safe alternatives for those fleeing conflict and persecution, so that they are not forced to attempt the crossing into Europe by sea, including resettlement, admission based on humanitarian needs, private sponsorship schemes, facilitated access to family reunification and the use of programmes such as student or employment visas.