Written by Anita Orav.
On 3 October 2013, 368 people drowned near the Italian island of Lampedusa, when an over-crowded boat capsized on the dangerous sea crossing from Africa to Europe. The tragedy prompted an international outcry, calling for urgent action to save lives in the Mediterranean.
3 October 2013
On the night of 3 October 2013, a wooden boat with the stated capacity of 35 passengers – but carrying around 500 asylum-seekers from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana – caught fire within sight of the Italian shore. The boat quickly capsized, taking 368 persons with it to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea.
Jean-Claude Mignon, the chair of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe was ‘deeply shocked by these terrible tragedies which unfortunately occur again and again’, and appealed to member states for urgent action to put an end to the loss of lives. However, this shipwreck did not stop migrants’ perilous journeys, nor the activity of smugglers profiting from this lucrative business. It also did not lead to a significant increase in efforts to improve search and rescue in the Mediterranean. Just a few days later, on 11 October 2013, another shipwreck, 120 kilometres from Lampedusa within Maltese territorial waters, led to 34 confirmed fatalities.
The Mediterranean, the world’s deadliest sea
Ten years have passed, but thousands continue to lose their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. As a stark reminder of the recurrent tragedies, 41 people died on 9 August 2023, when another boat sank off Lampedusa on its way from Tunisia to Italy.
Unfortunately, the number of deaths has remained high throughout recent years. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) stated in 2022 that, on average, five people per day died crossing the Mediterranean. The high death toll is confirmed by the Missing Migrants Project, which started in 2014 in response to disparate reports of people dying or disappearing along migratory routes. They count 28 105 missing migrants in the Mediterranean since 2014. The central Mediterranean, in particular, is the deadliest known migration route in the world, with over 22 328 deaths recorded on this route alone since 2014.
The reasons for the high death toll include the lengthy sea journey, which takes days, and increasingly dangerous smuggling patterns. In addition, there are gaps in search and rescue capacity, a lack of cooperation between different authorities, and numerous restrictions on the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) active in life-saving search and rescue. The vessels used by the migrants are often unseaworthy and overloaded inflatable boats. The smugglers also often launch several boats at the same time, intentionally complicating search and rescue efforts.
Search and rescue in the Mediterranean
EU Member State Search and rescue (SAR) and disembarkation activities are not currently subject to a common EU legal framework, except for those activities carried out as joint operations at sea led by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). If any of the Frontex planes or ships see a boat in need of assistance, the agency has to inform the national authority responsible for rescue activities in the area concerned and follow its instructions, in line with international maritime law. The world’s seas and oceans are divided into areas of responsibility, with each assigned to a national maritime rescue coordination centre. In the central Mediterranean Sea, rescue zones are divided between Italy, Malta, Libya, and Tunisia.
The European Commission has consistently emphasised that SAR is not an EU competence, and has limited itself to underlining the humanitarian dimension of SAR operations. But the lack of coordination in SAR activities, Member States’ reluctance to accept a binding mechanism for solidarity and responsibility-sharing, unilateral action by individual countries and criminalisation of NGOs active in SAR in the Mediterranean have led to migrants being forced to remain on boats for several days and sometimes weeks. EU Member States and Frontex have also been accused of pushbacks – sending asylum-seekers and other migrants to the high seas and towards Libya and Türkiye. The European Parliament has stepped up its action, and established the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group (FSWG) to investigate the possible involvement of Frontex in such pushbacks and violations of fundamental rights. NGOs trying to help boats full of migrants have been the subject of strong criticism and legal action. Their accountability is, however, not always clear, due to the varied application and interpretation of different bodies of international law. One solution, proposed by academics, could be a harmonisation of the fragmented legal regime for maritime interceptions.
Reform of EU migration policy
To end these tragedies at sea, the EU needs to address the gaps in its search and rescue capacities. Over the years, the European Parliament has consistently stressed the need to save lives and provide humanitarian assistance to those in need at sea. Most recently, on 13 July 2023, the Parliament adopted a resolution calling on Member States and Frontex to provide sufficient capacity in terms of vessels, equipment and personnel dedicated to SAR and to take a more proactive and coordinated approach to effectively saving lives at sea. The Parliament also proposed that more information about the dangers of this route should be available to people thinking about making the dangerous crossing, before they attempt the journey.
In parallel, it is essential to finalise the reform of the EU’s asylum and migration system, to reduce the triggers for irregular migration, counter migrant smuggling and provide adequate protection to people in need, in line with European values, fundamental rights and international law. After the Council agreed on its negotiating position on the main proposals in the reform package on 8 June 2023, the EU is closer than ever to achieving an overhaul of its asylum and migration rules that has been pending for years.
A key element of managing migration is also cooperation with non-EU countries, as emphasised by the Commission in its policy proposals, as well as in the agreements signed with main countries of origin and transit. The EU’s external policy has among its objectives to help non-EU countries tackle the root causes of irregular migration, but also to facilitate legal migration and mobility. While acknowledging the importance of this cooperation, the European Parliament resolution asks the Commission to provide comprehensive information about all the types of support the EU and its individual Member States provide to border and coast guards in non-EU countries, including Libya, Türkiye, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.