EU leaders challenged to act after 150 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea

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Human rights advocates on Friday reiterated their call for political leaders to ensure safe passage and end criminalization of rescue operations following reports that as many as 150 migrants drowned in a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea.

“This high number represents a new low for European leaders,” said Massimo Moratti, research director for Europe at Amnesty International, in a statement.

“They have done everything they can to pull up the drawbridge to Europe; withdrawing Search and Rescue Operations; criminalizing NGO rescue boats; cooperating with the Libyan coastguard, and yet people are still risking their lives to come to Europe.”

The United Nations refugee agency also stressed the need for swift action.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Friday, UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said that the boat disaster “underscores once again the terrible urgency of our repeated pleas to European and other governments for restoring sea rescues and help with alleviating the suffering of the thousands of refugees and migrants caught in the conflict in Libya.”

The latest tragedy—the Mediterranean has been graveyard of migrants for years—took place Thursday.

There were about 250 people on board, mainly from Eritrea and other sub-Saharan Africa and Arab countries, when the boat capsized off the coast near Komas, east of the capital Tripoli, Libyan navy spokesman Ayoub Qassem said.

Libya is a hub for migrants and refugees, many of whom try to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats.

“The worst Mediterranean tragedy of this year has just occurred,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in a tweet on Thursday.

One of the survivors, Abdallah Osman, told Agence France-Presse that the trouble began about 90 minutes into the trip when the boat began to take on water. Though a passing ship saw the boat in distress, it took no action.

“We thought they were going to save us,” said Osman, “but the people on board just looked.”

For Osman and the over 100 survivors who made it to shore, the tragedy has not ended—they face indefinite detention.

“Traumatized African migrants plucked from the sea silently awaited their fate Friday, as a Libyan fisherman said the waters were full of floating bodies,” reported AFP.

Libya, as Reuters noted in a brief report, is “a conflict zone where rescued migrants and refugees are routinely jailed in inhumane conditions.” They also face being targeted by airstrikes. Earlier this month, a strike hit a migrant detention facility in a Tripoli suburg killing at least 44 people trapped inside.

The detention of migrants in Libya was addressed in a joint statement earlier this week from International Organization for Migration (IOM) Director General António Vitorino and U.N.’s Grandi.

“There needs to be a process of orderly release of people in detention centers either to urban areas, or to open centers that allow reasonable freedom of movement, shelter, assistance, and protection from harm, plus independent monitoring and regular unhindered access for humanitarian agencies,” they said.

“In light of the risks of abuse, maltreatment or death,” they continued, “no one should be returned to detention centers in Libya after being intercepted or rescued at sea.”

Given the multiple threats the migrants face on land and at sea, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said there was much to be done to prevent further tragedies.

“Refugees and migrants in Libya are immensely vulnerable and are entitled to humanitarian protection under international humanitarian law,” said IRC Libya director Thomas Garofalo.

“Commitments from the international community must be dramatically expanded,” he added, laying out an action plan.

“Europe must step up and scale up evacuations to enable people to seek safety, and those who are intercepted at sea must not be returned to Libya,” Garofalo said. “The first, and perhaps the most urgent, step that can be taken is for Search and Rescue missions by NGOs to be decriminalized and for [the E.U.’s] Operation Sophia to be reinstated and provided with a Search and Rescue capacity. Only then will be able to avoid tragedies such as the one we have seen today.”

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