Over 200 Migrants Could Have Been Saved If

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Some 200 migrants presumed to have died in a major shipwreck last year could have been saved if Italian and Maltese authorities had not dithered over rescue operations, Amnesty International claimed in a report issued on Tuesday.

migrantsA boat capsized in Maltese search and rescue waters on October 11, 2013, with at least 400 people on board, according to survivors. Malta rescued 147 people, Italy picked up another 39, while the other passengers were never found.

“It is reasonable to question whether Italy and Malta acted promptly and with all available resources to save the refugees and migrants and whether a delay in going to their rescue contributed to the shipwreck,” the human rights association said.

Amnesty stressed that “both Italy and Malta claim they acted in full compliance with their obligations,” but its report – called Lives Adrift: Refugees and Migrants in Peril in the Central Mediterranean – highlighted a number of shortcomings.

It said the migrants, whose boat was taking on water after being shot at by a Libyan vessel, were rescued at least 5-6 hours after their first emergency call. They appealed to Italy first, but were told they had to call Malta because of their location.

Once alerted, Maltese authorities were said to have been slow in assuming charge of operations, and not to have involved passing cargo ships, while an Italian navy vessel allegedly sailed towards the wreck at less than full speed, leaving first rescue duties to Malta.

“The death of about 200 people, mostly refugees fleeing war, in an area of sea where rescue was available and had been repeatedly requested, demands accountability,” Amnesty said.

It called for “an independent inquiry” in both Italy and Malta “to investigate the possible failures to act of all those involved,” followed by prosecutions and compensation for victims’ families and survivors.

The shipwreck came in the wake of the October 3 sinking of a boat near the Italian island of Lampedusa, which killed at least 366 people. In reaction to the two accidents, Italy launched the Mare Nostrum rescue mission to prevent more sea tragedies.

Amnesty applauded the initiative, noting that Mare Nostrum had adopted a policy of rescuing all migrant boats spotted in the Mediterranean, regardless of whether they were in Italian, Maltese or Libyan search-and-rescue (SAR) waters.

The organization expressed concerns about plans to wind down the Italian mission once parallel operations run by the European Union border patrol agency, Frontex, come into operation on November 1, with potentially scarcer resources.

It warned that under the EU mission, “the long-standing wrangle between Italy and Malta over the extent of their respective SAR obligations is likely to resurface,” raising the prospect of a repetition of last year’s problems.

Since embarking on Mare Nostrum, Italy has experienced a record inflow of migrants. More than 135,000 have landed on its shores since January 1, compared to 43,000 in the whole of last year, and many of them have moved on to northern Europe, sparking intra-EU tensions.

Amnesty said mortality rates among Europe-bound sea migrants had dropped to 1.9 per cent, from more than 3 per cent, thanks to Italian patrols. However, the absolute number of migrant deaths has risen sharply because more people were attempting to make the journey.

Quoting the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR, the non-governmental organization said 2,500 people had died this year, according to a September 15 count, compared to more than 600 in 2013, 500 in 2012, and 1,500 in 2011.

“Ultimately, the death toll in the Mediterranean will decrease only if safe and regular routes in the the EU are opened,” Amnesty concluded, also urging the bloc to amend controversial asylum rules that prevent refugees from moving freely around the EU.

GNA

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