Shaoli Chakraborty, a student member of SIL, writes about the perils of one of the Mediterranean routes taken by Europe-bound refugees.

Throughout 2018, there were significant changes to the pattern of routes taken by refugees and migrants heading for Europe. Four years after the refugee crisis first brought the horrors of the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to the world’s attention, hundreds of people continue to die each year hoping to reach Europe’s shores.

Under international maritime and humanitarian law, rescue of people in distress is a duty placed on everyone at sea applicable whether in territorial or international waters. The duty to rescue people in distress at sea can be considered as another side of the right to life, which every individual enjoys under human rights law.

Over the years, Europe has added new functions to the mission, including training the Libyan coastguard and controlling the enforcement of a United Nations arms embargo on Libya, and illegal oil trafficking.

Furthermore, the Libyan Coast Guard stepped up its operations with the result that 85% of those rescued or intercepted in the newly established Libyan Search and Rescue Region (SRR) were disembarked in Libya, where they faced detention in appalling conditions (including limited access to food and outbreaks of disease at some facilities, along with several deaths). As a result, more vessels containing refugees and migrants attempted to sail beyond the Libyan SRR to evade the coast guard – either to make land in Malta and Italy or at least to reach the search and rescue regions of those jurisdictions.

These refugees are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, and are willing to risk everything for the dream of a better life in Europe. In most cases the vessels are unseaworthy and overstuffed. If it were not for a multi-national rescue effort made up of international navies, humanitarian aid agencies, commercial vessels and various coast guards, most of those migrants would die.

The EU mission was aimed at disrupting people traffickers and rescuing migrants attempting to make the dangerous crossing in rickety boats. But diplomats have recently informed that the operation will no longer carry out maritime patrols after Italy refused to continue receiving those rescued at sea. It will instead rely on air patrols and closer coordination with Libya, according to diplomats.

The move has been roundly condemned by charities and rights groups, which said cancellation of rescue missions move will lead to more deaths in the Mediterranean. The downgrading of the EU mission appears to have come as a result of pressure from Italy, where anti-refugee sentiment is high and a populist government has cracked down on charity rescue missions operating off its coast.

The duty of states to make available “sufficient resources” for the implementation of policies aiming at protection emanates from the positive strand of human rights as set out in treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, looking at the deplorable ordeal of the migrants in such frivolous situations, it is hard to determine whether at all their rights are being protected or not. Looking at the current scenario, there is a need for the urgent establishment of a coordinated and predictable regional mechanism to strengthen rescue at sea, as well as greater responsibility sharing in general.

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