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European states urged to stop ignoring refugee deaths after at least six drown and 700 others are returned to Libya

Meanwhile, the Italian authorities bar the Sea Watch 4 rescue ship from leaving port again

EUROPEAN states can no longer ignore refugee deaths in the central Mediterranean, humanitarian organisations said today following more deaths and the return of hundreds to war-torn Libya.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) announced that at least five people, among them a child, had drowned when their boat capsized off the Libyan coast on Sunday.

Survivors of the shipwreck were brought to shore by fishing-boat crews.

Elsewhere on Sunday, the EU-supported Libyan Coastguard intercepted more than 700 people as they attempted to make the perilous sea crossing to Europe, while 1,400 others managed to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa completely unaided by any European authority.

Federico Soda, the IOM chief of mission for Libya, wrote on social media today that he was “extremely concerned about the increased departures from Libya and the continuous loss of life.

“The situation cannot be ignored and states must live up to their responsibilities and redeploy search-and-rescue vessels.”

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Red Crescent (IRC) reported another shipwreck this afternoon, saying that 42 survivors had been returned to Tripoli by the Libyan Coastguard.

“UNHCR & IRC [are] treating survivors suffering from burns in different parts of their bodies,” the agencies tweeted today. “One body was recovered, and 23 persons are reported missing.”

The latest shipwrecks bring the total number of people who have drowned in the central Mediterranean this year to at least 157 and more than 349 missing.

While much of Europe continues to frame the crisis in the central Mediterranean in terms of the numbers of migrants and refugees reaching the continent, IOM spokeswoman Safa Msehli told The Civil Fleet that the real crisis “is the lack of humane policy and failure to uphold obligations and human rights.”

She said: “While people continue to take these dangerous journeys and deaths continue to increase, very little action has been taken by the international community to reduce loss of life and alleviate some of the suffering for migrants trapped in Libya.

“For policy to be truly effective, human rights need to be at the centre of decision-making. Attempts to stop movement of people are simply ineffective and unrealistic and the approach to migration needs to be one of management, rather than containment.”

NGO distress hotline network Alarm Phone warned that it had lost contact with seven boats in the central Mediterranean — carrying at least 572 people in total — that its activists had pleaded with the authorities to rescue since Sunday.

“Although we notified authorities immediately, no one responded,” Alarm Phone told The Civil Fleet today.

“In the long hours that followed, we lost contact with all the boats. We think that it is possible that three boats arrived to Lampedusa. The fate of three other boats, however, is even less clear: the last positions they sent were in Maltese SAR zone.

“One last boat was in critical conditions in international waters close to the Libyan coast. We are worried about the fate of all these people, as authorities refuse to answer our questions.

“With authorities not responding, people who are fleeing appalling conditions in Libya have to survive much longer and more dangerous journeys; the consequences of this have been clear to all, as hundreds of deaths have marked the last few weeks.

“Two-and-a-half weeks ago, up to 130 people died; shortly after that at least eleven people, now again at least five.

“Although Alarm Phone tries to shed light on these border killings, unfortunately many remain unknown, as the absence of from NGO civil rescue ships leaves a critical gap in the testimony of Europe’s murderous border regime.

“Indeed, the last days have also shown that a lack of civil sea rescue has not changed the fact that people still try to undertake the sea crossing; this once again disproves bad-faith arguments that NGO ships act as a ‘pull factor’: people are willing to risk their lives to escape from the horrible situation in Libya, and hindering sea rescue will continue to cause deaths.”

Meanwhile, refugee rescue NGO Sea Watch announced that its ship the Sea Watch 4, which saved the lives of 455 people last week, has again been banned from leaving the port of Trapani on the Italian island of Sicily.

The administrative court in Palermo had given the Sea Watch 4 permission to leave Italy in March after it had been held there since September 2020 following the rescue of hundreds of refugees.

However, following an appeal by the Italian coastguard, the authorities renewed their ban on the vessel’s departure.

Sea Watch said in a statement: “Meanwhile, in the absence of NGO ships, 2,100 people have disembarked in Lampedusa, 700 were pulled back to Libya and at least five have drowned.

“Now [the Italian authorities] can arbitrarily determine who can be rescued and who will be left to die or to be pulled back to Libya illegally.

“As proven by the arrivals, pullbacks and deaths of the past hours, people will keep fleeing Libya even if no-one is there to rescue them in a sea that Italy’s foreign minister himself has labelled as dangerous as he asked Italian nationals to avoid it.

“Getting rid of NGO ships without providing any alternatives is a death sentence to those who have no choice but fleeing across the sea.”

Top image shows a Libyan Coastguard ship returning refugees to Tripoli [Pic: IOM]

Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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