Migrants: on the Mediterranean, an "untenable" and "deadly" situation

Migrants from Tunisia and Libya arrive aboard a coastguard boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa, August 1, 2020. Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Text by: Romain Philips Follow

7 min

Against a background of concerns and the fight against Covid-19, the countries of the Mediterranean rim are increasingly withdrawing from the Mediterranean and the management of illegal crossings, and even toughening their migration policy.


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Arrived off Libya on July 22, the SeaWatch 4 , a ship of about sixty meters flying the German flag, did not have to comb the waves to begin its operations at sea. Wednesday July 26, after 3 rescues in 3 days, more than 200 people - including dozens of minors - are on board the ship chartered by the homonymous NGO and Médecins sans frontières (MSF).

A situation that recalls "  how dangerous and deadly the road is and how migrants, refugees and asylum seekers continue to arrive in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean  ", says Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, in charge of humanitarian issues at MSF. . Since the start of the year, “  more than 17,000 people have arrived in Italy and Malta  ” from the Libyan and Tunisian coasts , three times more than in 2019, according to the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) .

But these figures above all recall the mortal danger represented by this crossing. At least 303 migrants perished on the central Mediterranean migration route, the UN agency said. On August 19, 45 people, including 5 children , lost their lives in the deadliest shipwreck of 2020. Crowded with 37 other migrants - those who could be rescued - on a precarious inflatable boat, they died after the boat engine explosion off Zwara, Libya.

Obstruction of NGO work

The current estimated number of deaths is probably much higher,  " warns the UNHCR and the IOM (International Organization for Migration) who call for "  urgent action  " from Mediterranean states. Except that since the end of June, before the arrival of the Sea Watch 4 in the area a few days ago, no rescue boat was present for the rescue operations. All were in administrative detention in Italian ports. For example, the Ocean Viking , a ship of the NGO SOS Méditerranée, has been stranded in Sicily for more than a month, just like three other ships.

🆘 For more than a month, the # OceanViking has been detained by the Italian authorities. Blocked at the quay, the @sosmedfrance ambulance ship is prevented from saving lives at sea. You too, demand its release. Sign the petition:
➡️ https://t.co/lU0hGrw6Jb#FreeOceanViking pic.twitter.com/8GSDIubVPq

  SOS MEDITERRANEE France (@SOSMedFrance) August 24, 2020

A number of European States remain very cautious about the possibility of letting NGOs operate a sea rescue service that they no longer provide themselves in the central Mediterranean  ", explains to RFI Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy. for the Mediterranean. Thus leaving the rescue to the Libyan coast guards, who unload the refugees in this country where they risk being locked up, delivered to traffickers or even killed. As a result, "  two migrants of Sudanese origin were killed and three others wounded in a shooting at the Khums landing point in Libya  " while trying to escape after being brought back to Libya by the coast guard at the end of July. , reports the IOM which, like all NGOs, would like to point out that Libya is not a safe country.

The situation for NGOs has become "  untenable  ", considers the head of MSF. Concerns about a resurgence of the Covid-19 epidemic set in motion the Malta Agreement, the mechanism for the distribution of migrants adopted between France, Germany, Italy, France and Malta. Indeed, border closures and fears of Covid-19 intake through migratory flows have pushed countries to reduce the reception of migrants. “  European states, not just Italy and Malta, are trying to completely disengage from the Mediterranean. And the obligation to help people in distress at sea is being eroded more and more by States  ”, regrets the MSF representative.

The pandemic situation has exacerbated these tensions  "

What was not possible to do with the reasons of the fight against illegal migration is now possible because of the fight against the pandemic  ", regrets Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. A phenomenon observed for a few weeks now, the increase in cases of coronavirus within groups of migrants arriving on European coasts has all the more accentuated the hardening of the migration policy of the host countries, driven by the concerns of the population local.

In Sicily, for example, the president of the region indicated on Sunday August 23 that he wanted to close all reception centers for migrants, accused of promoting the spread of the virus. A challenge directly launched to the Italian government which brushed aside the decision, arguing that it was a state competence, and not the region.

Such tensions are palpable in Greece. There were already very strong tensions between the local population and the government because of the overcrowded camps and the pandemic situation has exacerbated these tensions  ", explains to RFI Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR representative in Greece.

An obstacle to the work of NGOs which also has the consequence of making the rescue actions carried out by commercial boats which survey the Mediterranean difficult. For fear of being quarantined or of not being able to disembark the rescued migrants, commercial boats no longer stop to help the boats. Some still offer water and food to people who attempt the crossing but without getting them on board, according to numerous accounts.

The Covid-19 is also responsible for the unplanned departure of hundreds of people on the migratory routes. In the case of Tunisia alone, the increase is 462% compared to last year, according to the UNHCR. Driven by the economic difficulties caused by the health crisis, many of them leave North Africa to try their luck in Europe.

Many had no intention of (crossing the sea) previously  ", but with the crisis, refugees from countries like economically hard hit Tunisia "  have lost their jobs in their country of first asylum and are are found unemployed and homeless  , ”explains Vincent Cochetel.

Even if the pandemic has caused a jump in the number of people on the migratory routes of the central Mediterranean, the situation is far from the figures of the strongest years of the migratory crisis which began in 2015. “  The situations are manageable  ”, assures l UNHCR special envoy. Provided that at European level, and despite the pandemic, there is greater solidarityin the distribution of refugees  " and no longer leave Italy and Malta alone in the face of the influx of asylum seekers. “  We no longer need negotiations when each boat arrives. ". But for that, they must already be sailing.

►To (re) listen: Accents d'Europe - Migrants: the invisible victims of Covid-19

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