North Africa: UN Urges ‘Robust’ Rescue Operations for Refugees Following Largest Migrant Catastrophe in Mediterranean

The head of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has expressed shock at the news of the latest boat capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea in which hundreds of people are feared lost, adding that such a catastrophic event provides yet another indication of the need for a “robust” rescue-at-sea mechanism aimed at preventing future tragedies.

“This disaster confirms how urgent it is to restore a robust rescue-at-sea operation and establish credible legal avenues to reach Europe,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres confirmed in a press release issued today. “Otherwise people seeking safety will continue to perish at sea.”

According to initial accounts, the boat overturned shortly before midnight on 18 April in Libyan waters and some 180 kilometres south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Italian and Maltese naval vessels and merchant ships are reportedly in the area and currently involved in the ongoing rescue operation. Nonetheless, only around 50 of the 700 migrants reported to be aboard the capsized boat have so far been rescued.

The incident – which occurred overnight – will be the largest loss of life from any incident involving refugees and migrants on the Mediterranean Sea and comes just days after a similar maritime tragedy took another 400 lives.

The UN refugee agency has long been advocating for a comprehensive and urgent response from the European Union and shared specific proposals including the establishment of a possible scheme to compensate shipping companies involved in rescuing people at sea, increasing credible legal alternatives to dangerous voyages and a pilot relocation programme for Syrians refugees arriving in Italy and Greece.

At the same time, Mr. Guterres said today’s tragedy also pointed to the need for a comprehensive European approach to address the root causes that drive so many people to such a tragic end.

“I hope the EU will rise to the occasion, fully assuming a decisive role to prevent future such tragedies,” he added.

2015 has already seen some 31,500 people make crossings to Italy and Greece – the first and second largest countries of arrival respectively. UNHCR has reported that numbers have also been recently picking up as weather conditions in the Mediterranean improve.

If today’s death toll is confirmed, some 1600 people would have died already this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

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