EU patrol 'woefully inadequate' for saving migrants: UN
The UN refugee agency on Thursday urged the European Union to do far more to save migrant lives in the Mediterranean after the latest high seas tragedy, saying its maritime border patrol is "woefully inadequate."
The UNHCR issued its strongly-worded statement after more than 300 migrants were feared drowned this week when their overcrowded dinghies sank on the perilous crossing from north Africa to Europe.
It joins rights group Amnesty International and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in pushing for greater EU action to save migrants.
"UNCHR is today calling on the European Union to urgently change its approach to dealing with sea crossings with a view to ensuring that saving lives is the top-most priority," the Geneva-based agency said.
The latest deaths have highlighted the limited means and scope of Triton, an EU-run mission which took over in November from the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation.
Italy decided to scale back the mission after its EU partners refused to share running costs of around nine million euros ($10 million) a month.
Triton, which comes under the authority of the EU borders agency Frontex, has a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros ($3.3 million) and its patrols are generally restricted to the territorial waters of EU member states.
"There can be no doubt left after this week's events that Europe's Operation Triton is a woefully inadequate replacement for Italy's Mare Nostrum," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
"The focus has to be about saving lives. We need a robust search and rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean, not only a border patrol."
Guterres said he is concerned that Europe is planning to phase out rather than step up its rescue efforts in response to the growing boat disasters.
Amnesty International slammed EU countries Wednesday for "burying their heads in the sand while hundreds keep dying at sea".
- 'Europe has to commit more' -
IOM spokesman Joel Millman told AFP his organisation does not "think it's wrong for countries and for Europe as a group to enforce border security".
But he said that Triton needs to devote more resources to its search and rescue operations and broaden their scope.
"We just think that Europe has to commit more not just in what they're doing in the seas but what they're doing to prevent people from having to migrate," Millman said.
"There should be much more emphasis on legal migration."
The European Commission, the EU executive, acknowledged more needed to be done.
"Tackling this common challenge has to be a joint effort of the commission and the member states working together," Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told reporters Wednesday.
Survivors of the latest disaster who spoke with IOM staff after being taken to the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday described how ruthless smugglers had forced them to board inflatable rafts and set out in raging seas.
"They forced us to climb aboard the ship with guns and sticks, robbing us of all our belongings," one survivor was quoted as saying.
UNHCR said at least 3,500 people lost their lives last year out of more than 218,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean, making it the most deadly route in the world.
Mare Nostrum was launched after two October 2013 sinkings off the Italian island of Lampedusa left more than 400 dead.
The surge in migrants is a result of wars, conflicts and poverty in Syria, the Horn of Africa and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
© 2015 AFP