International organisations and rights groups have given a mixed reaction to
the European Union’s plan to triple the size of its naval search mission in the Mediterranean.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) welcomed the measures as an ‘important first step towards collective European action’.
It noted that the operation would now be comparable to Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue force, which was ended six months ago, and said the key test was whether lives were saved and war refugees gained asylum.
“Europe took a small step back from the moral abyss yesterday by increasing the search and rescue capacity and also by tripling the budget of Triton but there remains no clarity around the operational area of the search and rescue capacity or that it’s going to prioritise search and rescue rather than border control,” said Save The Children spokeswoman Gemma Parkin.
The EU’s move also leaves questions for commercial ships, many of whom are involved in rescuing migrants.
Earlier this month the Maersk Regensburg cargo ship rescued more than 400 people from a sinking ship north of Tripoli – far from Italy.
But the EU Triton mission operated by the border agency Frontex is limited to operating within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast.
“My opinion is if the EU are going for a 30 mile limit for rescue operations it will have very little impact on the area where the majority of the rescues are occurring”, said the Maersk Regensburg’s Captain Lewington.
“I would expect there to be rescues ongoing, we may or may not be called to be involved. I feel something needs to be done, it should not be down to commercial ships,” he added.
Amnesty International said migrants and refugees would continue to drown unless the EU mission’s mandate was extended to the high seas, calling the response a face-saving rather than a life-saving operation.
Human Rights Watch also criticised the EU’s measures – calling for a clear rescue mandate to cover the high seas, instead of focusing on protecting Europe’s borders.