UNHCR calls for strengthening of search and rescue for migrants in Mediterranean

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People hold a banner reading 'We don't want refugees' during a demonstration called by the far-right political party Espana 2000 (E-2000) against the arrival of the Aquarius rescue ship in Valencia on June 16, 2018. The boat, which is due to arrive in Spain on Sunday morning with more than 600 people on board, has been the heart of a major migration row between European Union member states. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENA

Charlie Yaxley, spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), said at a press briefing in Geneva on Friday that search and rescue capabilities for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea must be strengthened.

“UNHCR is especially concerned about the impact of a more limited search and rescue capacity if boats are discouraged from responding to distress calls through fear of being denied permission to disembark people rescued. NGOs in particular have voiced their concerns at restrictions being placed on their abilities to conduct search and rescue as a result of limitations on their movements and the threat of potential legal actions,” he said.

Yaxley said that while significantly lower numbers of asylum-seekers and migrants have reached European shores in the first six months of 2018, men, women and children continue to die at sea, and in proportionally larger numbers.

“The high loss of life illustrates the urgent need to strengthen search and rescue capacities in the region. UNHCR thanks all those involved in rescue operations, but with so many lives at stake, we reiterate the absolute importance, aligned with the obligations under the law of the sea, to permit efforts to respond to people distress at sea,” he said.

NGOs play a critical role in rescuing people in distress at sea, carrying out around 40 percent of rescue operations from January to April this of year for those disembarked in Italy — including people first rescued by military and commercial boats and later transferred to NGO vessels.

“As we enter the peak season for attempted crossings, saving lives must be the key priority. Any reduction in search and rescue capacity will almost certainly lead to further unnecessary loss of life, as unscrupulous smugglers, with little regard for human life, continue to organize sea crossings using flimsy and unseaworthy vessels,” he said, adding, “Any vessel with the capability to assist search and rescue operations should be allowed to come to the aid of those in need and subsequently allowed to disembark at the nearest appropriate safe port.”

A rescue boat carrying 60 migrants was allowed to dock in Barcelona earlier this week after being turned away by Italy and Malta, the Independent reported on Wednesday.

The ship was first turned away by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who said the rescue boat “can forget about arriving in an Italian port” and then suggested the boat should dock in Malta, which he claimed was the nearest port.

The Maltese government made sure to quickly declare that their ports were off-limits to the vessel when Interior Minister Michael Farrugia claimed that the small Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily, was closer to the rescue boat than their shores.

The ship is the third vessel to be turned away by Salvini and the Italian government in the space of a month. Last week a German rescue boat docked in Malta after Italy refused to take it. Earlier last month, Salvini also stopped a ship carrying 600 migrants from docking on Italian shores.

“UNHCR reiterates our call of recent weeks, issued together with IOM, for a collaborative, regional approach to Mediterranean Sea crossings that provides clear and predictable guidelines for search and rescue, and disembarkation,” said Yaxley.

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