MEPs call for EU search and rescue mission over Mediterranean 'disgrace'

Migrants and refugees from Africa sailing adrift on an overcrowded rubber boat, receive life jackets from aid workers of the Spanish NGO Aita Mary in the Mediterranean Sea
Migrants and refugees from Africa sailing adrift on an overcrowded rubber boat, receive life jackets from aid workers of the Spanish NGO Aita Mary in the Mediterranean Sea Copyright Pau de la Calle/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Mared Gwyn JonesSandor Zsiros
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Members of the European Parliament will vote Thursday on a motion calling for a new EU-wide search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean.


According to the draft motion seen by Euronews, EU lawmakers want new, comprehensive search and rescue operations to be implemented by EU countries and Frontex, the EU border agency, “in the absence of sufficient action by individual member states.”

It comes a month after a boat carrying up to 750 migrants capsized off the coast of Greece in one of the deadliest migration tragedies in the Mediterranean. The slow and uncoordinated response of both the Greek authorities and Frontex has come under scrutiny, with many EU lawmakers calling for an independent investigation.

The text was put forward by a broad cross-party coalition including the European People's Party (EPP), Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Renew Europe, the Greens and the Left.

"Since 2014, more than 27,000 people have died or are missing in the Mediterranean. The situation is a disgrace. Without civilian sea rescuers, who save lives every day, there would be many more dead,” Cornelia Ernst, a Left MEP from Germany, told Euronews.

“The EU and its member states allow this to happen, build walls, fund fences and even avoid rescuing people in distress. We need an EU-coordinated and financed search and rescue operation and legal routes to Europe," she added.

EPP President Manfred Weber meanwhile told reporters in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday: "I would invite a general understanding of how to treat these tragedies [...] We need a serious management and not a party political management of these issues."

The draft motion also calls on the European Commission to assess whether member states have violated EU and international law by conducting migrant pushbacks. 

The Commission does not have investigative powers with such inquiries helmed by national authorities instead. 

Brussels recently warned it could take formal steps in response to allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants by the Greek authorities, while a recent report by the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, found that Frontex covered up illegal pushbacks by Athens between 2020 and 2021.

The text of the resolution, which will be debated Wednesday ahead of Thursday's vote, urges EU countries to “maintain their nearest safe ports open to NGO vessels and to not criminalise those who provide assistance to migrants in distress," a nod to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hostile attempts to halt humanitarian vessels from docking in Italian ports.

The draft motion also explicitly accuses Libyan authorities of transferring intercepted migrants to detention centres, where they are exposed to “torture and other ill-treatment, including rape.” It states Libya "is often unresponsive to distress calls, has hindered NGO vessels from saving lives and has put lives at risk when rescuing or intercepting persons at sea”.

Resolutions by the European Parliament are not legally binding for other institutions. 

Over the weekend, reports emerged of a Libyan coastguard operating an EU-funded boat firing at a humanitarian vessel conducting rescue operations. Responding to the allegations, a European Commission spokesperson said Monday that they are inquiring the relevant Tunisian and Italian authorities.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson recently acknowledged that criminal groups have infiltrated the Libyan coastguards.

The Commission provides financial aid to third countries such as Libya, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco to help stem migration. The draft text requests more comprehensive information on the level of support provided to these countries and for allegations of human rights violations to be assessed.

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