The UN’s refugee chief called on the European Union on Thursday to plan a “robust” operation to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean to replace an Italian service that has saved more than 160,000 lives.
High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said the EU’s Triton search and rescue mission was no substitute for the Mare Nostrum operation which the Italian authorities began in October 2013 and are currently bringing to an end.
“Now that we are in the winter time, now that the crossings are smaller in number, it is time to plan for next year an effective new search and rescue operation,” Guterres told reporters in Geneva.
“Be it Mare Nostrum again, be it an operation under the responsibility of the European Union, it is clear that the Triton operation that is in place has other objectives, other dimensions.
“We need a robust search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean in 2015 as we had in 2014 if we want to avoid a terrible tragedy.”
Guterres was speaking after a two-day meeting in Geneva with a range of representatives of states and non-governmental groups about how to reduce the huge toll of migrants dying at sea.
A record 348,000 migrants and refugees took to leaky boats this year in search of a better life in Europe, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East, 4,272 of them dying in the process, according to the UN refugee agency.
Italy announced the end of the Mare Nostrum in October, complaining it could not continue without funding from other EU partners.
Shortly afterwards the EU announced its Triton programme, under the control of the border agency Frontex, but said it would support rather than replace Italy’s efforts.