The EU’s system of migration control underwent a shift in policy during 2017. After a high number of migrants travelled to Europe from Africa in 2014, in 2015 the EU launched Operation Sophia in international waters, with its headquarters in Rome. This operation was dependent on the Italian Navy, coastguard and other vessels saving migrants and bringing them to Italy and other southern European countries to have their requests for asylum processed.
Many NGO boats frequently rescued migrants from small boats after smugglers brought them short distances away from African coasts. These NGO boats cooperated with the Italian coastguard, navy and other vessels as they would pass migrants to them or take migrants directly to ports. But, as the number of migrants entering the EU rose, in 2016 and 2017 the EU shifted the emphasis to paying and training African countries to keep migrants away from Europe. This change to Operation Sophia included the EU training the Libyan coastguard and navy.
In light of this policy, the number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea fell from 181,436 in 2016 to 119,369 in 2017 and 23,370 in 2018. EU officials knew that the Operation Sophia shift away from sea rescues, in 2017, involved collaborating with and paying African militias and funding horrendous detention centres. They also knew this would result in migrant deaths, according to leaked documents from EU agencies.
Since 2018, Italy has asked other EU states to share the distribution of migrants and operation of sea patrols, and to open their ports for migrants to disembark, but they have mostly refused. Consequently, in March 2019, Operation Sophia was extended for six months, but with the end of maritime rescue patrols and more training for the Libyan coastguard. While the current Italian government has been in the spotlight for fining migrant rescuers, it is the EU that has most starkly abandoned migrants.
According to The Guardian, dozens of bodies have been recovered from the Mediterranean, a day after the shipwreck that caused the deaths of up to 150 migrants.
Eyewitnesses described harrowing scenes in the sea, in what a senior UN official called the “the worst Mediterranean tragedy” so far this year. Fishermen told AFP they saw bodies as they waded through the wreckage searching for survivors: “There were bodies floating on the surface of the water where the boat went down.”
One survivor, Abdallah Osman, said the boat making the perilous journey from Libya started to fill with water about 90 minutes after setting out to sea on Wednesday night. Then its engine broke down.
“Shortly after dawn, fishermen came out with their small boats and started taking us to shore, five at a time ... That went on until nine in the morning,” he told AFP.
At about 10.30 am Anne-Cecilia Kjaer, a nurse activity manager at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), arrived at a military base in Khoms in Libya, where the survivors were recovering.
“It was a very, very hot day. People were sitting against a wall to find some shade. They were barely dressed – some were wearing just a towel or underwear. They were just sitting in the shade, in shock.
“One man from Sudan, who was literally pulled out of the water, told our team that he had seen his wife and kids drown. He seemed aghast, just sitting there in shock.” Kjaer said those on the boat originated from Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and Bangladesh.
The survivors told MSF medical workers they had left the Libyan coast on Wednesday evening at sunset, “possibly on board three boats lashed to each other”.
As they continued towards the shore, the boat started to fill with water. “Most of the children couldn’t swim, and even those who could swim sank because of fatigue,” Kjaer said.
Thursday’s shipwreck is thought to be the deadliest Mediterranean crossing this year with an estimated 150 dead. The dangerous crossings from north Africa to European shores peaked after the 2011 uprisings across the Middle East.
The heads of the two key UN agencies championing refugees and migrants have called for an end to their “arbitrary detention” across Libya, following an agreement on Tuesday by European Union countries to offer those fleeing across the Mediterranean a safe berth through a new distribution mechanism.
“The violence in Tripoli in recent weeks has made the situation more desperate than ever, and the need for action critical”, stressed António Vitorino, Director General of the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), and Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Disagreements on how to distribute people rescued at sea, led the European Union (EU) to end official Mediterranean Sea patrols earlier this year, as Italy rejected having to take the bulk of those rescued. While the specifics have not yet been outlined, news agencies reported that 14 EU countries have reached a tentative agreement to allocate migrants and refugees more evenly across the bloc.
The UN officials advocated for a more orderly release process for those in detention, within urban areas or open centres, “that allow reasonable freedom of movement, shelter, assistance and protection from harm, plus independent monitoring and regular unhindered access for humanitarian agencies”. Considering the risks of abuse, maltreatment or death, “no one should be returned to detention centres in Libya after being intercepted or rescued at sea”, they stressed.
They said the renewed commitment from EU States for those making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing was encouraging: “The status quo, where search and rescue operations are often left to NGO [non-governmental organisations] or commercial vessels, cannot continue”, underscored the high-ranking officials, calling for a renewed commitment to an EU State search and rescue operation, “similar to programmes we have seen in recent years”.
The “crucial role” of NGOs “must be acknowledged”, they continued and not criminalised or stigmatised for saving lives at sea.
More migrants have been moved to a detention centre in Libya’s capital where an air strike killed more than 50 people last week, despite a risk it could be hit again which led to survivors being evacuated, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Friday.
Around 95 migrants were moved to the Tajoura centre in Tripoli on Thursday, some rounded up in the local community and others transferred from another detention centre in the city, the aid group said.
Earlier in the week migrants left at the centre after the July 3 bombing - some of whom were sleeping in the open for fear of another strike - were either released or evacuated, following appeals from the United Nations. An official at the Tajoura centre who asked not to be named said that following the evacuations, “we have resumed work and started receiving more (migrants)”. He declined to give more details.
The centre was hit as forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar intensified their efforts to wrest control of Tripoli from forces aligned with the internationally recognised government, which is based in the capital.