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Europe must review Mediterranean search and rescue operations, says UNHCR

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By Michael-Ross Fiorentino  with Reuters
Migrants are rescued by SOS Mediterranee organisation
Migrants are rescued by SOS Mediterranee organisation   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

European governments must review their search and rescue capacities in the Mediterranean Sea according to the UN Refugee Agency in Geneva.

"This year, with at least more than 1,700 lives lost in the Mediterranean, the needs have not gone away. So the fear is if there is no search and rescue in the Mediterranean, more lives will be lost,” said UNHCR spokesman, Babar Baloch.

He continued to by saying the UNHCR is appealing to European governments to urgently review search and rescue efforts on the central Mediterranean, including re-examining current arrangements between countries.

This concern from the UN increased this week after the Aquarius 2, which was the last charity vessel still operating in the area, had its registration revoked by the Panama Maritime Authority. There will now be no charity rescue shops off the Libyan coast until the vessel finds a new flag to sail under.

One of the charities which operate the Aquarius, SOS Mediterranee, said they were shocked to learn the Aquarius was "de-flagged" and blamed the Italian authorities for pressuring the PMA to take immediate action against the Aquarius.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has previously accused SOS Mediterranee and other charities of acting like a Mediterranean “taxi service” for the migrants. Salvini also said that Aquarius 2 had impeded the work of the Libyan coast guard in dealing with the situation.

Médecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee described the decision by the Panama Maritime Authority as “a major blow” to the ship’s humanitarian mission.

More than 650,000 people have arrived in Italy via the sea since 2014, causing the government to demand help from their European Union partners in helping with the influx.

The International Organization for Migrations (IOM) and the UNHCR agree the key reason for the increased death rate in the Mediterranean Sea was the reduced search and rescue capacity off the Libyan coast.

Both agencies stressed the importance for European governments to agree on disembarkation ports to allow commercial ships to rescue migrants as maritime law commands.

Since the start of 2018, one in 18 people trying to reach Europe has died or gone missing during the voyage. However, overall migration numbers have fallen over the previous 12 months. Between January and July, the number of refugees and migrants entering Europe via Greece, Italy, and Spain dropped by 41% compared to last year.

The UNHCR called for further action by European States to strengthen access to protection for refugees entering Europe, including improving access to States' asylum procedures, strengthening the response to persons with specific needs, and ensuring a consistent and predictable approach to sea rescues.

According to the UNHCR study 'Desperate Journeys,' up to 90% of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe depart from Libya, where an estimated 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The study also states that hundreds of thousands of people across the north-African country are suffering and living in unsafe conditions with little or no access to health care, essential medicines, food, safe drinking water, shelter or education.