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Amnesty: Italy, Malta at fault for refugee shipwreck deaths

September 30, 2014

Amnesty International has said some 200 refugees 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 released the report in Brussels on Tuesday just hours before the European parliamentary confirmation hearing of Dimitris Avramopoulos, Greece's incoming European Commissioner for migration and home affairs.

Amnesty said the EU's new leadership must boost air and naval power in the Mediterranean to rescue migrants who are dying in record numbers trying to reach the continent's shores. In its report, titled: "Lives adrift: Refugees and migrants in peril in the central Mediterranean," the British-based campaign group described a "Fortress Europe" blocking out migrants and refugees, many of them fleeing unrest in Syria and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

At least 400 people were on board a boat that capsized in Maltese search and rescue waters on October 11, 2013, 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 in its report.

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. Malta allegedly didn't alert passing cargo ships, and an the Italian navy is accused of sailing towards the wreck at less than full speed, leaving first rescue duties to Malta.

Italy says more money needed

Italy's navy has been patrolling the waters between Africa and Sicily since 366 people drowned after their boat capsized within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa. That incident was just a week before the rescue in Maltese waters.

Italy has repeatedly called for more EU help to tackle the emergency as Italy plans to gradually phase out its Mare Nostrum (Our Ocean) search-and-rescue program, which has saved more than 90,000 lives in the past year.

Amnesty warned in its report that European Union countries must devote "considerable" resources for migrant rescues in the Mediterranean Sea before Italy can discontinue its own mission, or "many more lives will be lost at sea."

Amnesty urged the EU to change its asylum policy, which puts the onus on border countries like Italy and Malta to take in refugees, and eventually to establish safe ways for migrants and refugees to reach Europe.

"So long as the EU continues to push those fleeing conflict or poverty to take dangerous sea journeys, it must be prepared - collectively - to meet its obligations to save lives," Amnesty said.

The International Organization for Migration said on Monday that a record 3,072 migrants have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats so far this year, compared to 2,360 in 2013.

crh/dr (dpa, Reuters, AFP)