Sunday, February 26, just 150 metres off the Calabrian coast in southern Italy, a dramatic shipwreck caused the death of 71 people, including 15 children.

The migrants were escaping from the destruction of war, violence and torture from countries like Syria, Afghan­istan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, travelling on a makeshift boat through extreme weather.

According to EU laws, they were refugees who deserved protection from the circumstances they fled. But they received none.

Such deaths should not and cannot be considered an accident but an avoidable tragedy caused by negligence, short-sightedness and the unwillingness to create a coordinated European system for migration management and search and rescue at sea.

Justice will disclose the responsibility for the failure to rescue people who lost their lives at sea.

Approximately 24 hours before the Cutro shipwreck, an Italian radio station received a mayday, a distress call without coordinates, from a boat in the Ionian Sea. On Saturday evening, a plane from Frontex (the European coast guard agency) spotted the vessel and warned the Italian authorities of its presence.

Following the call, two patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza attempted to make contact with the migrant ship but, due to adverse sea conditions, they were unable to.

Not understanding the seriousness of the situation, the initial procedure was a police approach instead of a search and rescue operation.

Had a SAR mission been launched instead by the Italian coast guard, with their more advanced equipment, many lives might have been saved. However, by the time the SAR operation was finally triggered, it was already too late. The worst had happened.

It is not yet clear why the Italian coast guard’s regulations and the rules of engagement on rescue at sea were not followed. According to the 2021 regulation, rescue operations should be triggered “when it is assumed that there is a real situa­tion of danger for people... to the extent that information with a minimal reliability must be considered truthful until proven otherwise”. 

With the exception of the Themis mission, launched by Frontex in 2018, there have been no humanitarian SAR missions in the Mediterranean.

Despite the presence of 10 ships, two planes and two helicopters and an active mission to fight cross-border criminal activities as well as intelligence, the Frontex mission continues to be ineffective in ensuring the rescue of migrants at sea.

The opening of safe channels would empty these boats of death- Regina Catrambone

By statute, the mission cannot start search and rescue operations independently with­out the coordination of a national Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC). Therefore, Frontex can monitor and report the presence of boats at sea and assist the national agency in rescue but it cannot initiate rescues independently.

It would be appropriate to extend the Themis mission or to create a new one that has the potential of launching search and rescue activities on behalf of all European states to intervene faster and save lives.

Migrants continue to be left at the mercy of the sea, abandoned in the waves to their fate in silence. Every year, terrible shipwrecks occur unseen, out of the public eye, with few knowing of their existence. In the meantime, European states are building repressive mechanisms in the hope of protecting their borders, indifferent to the suffering of migrants.

Pope Francis, who insists that migration towards Europe “cannot be stopped”, has urged all parties involved to find a sol­ution that can be “beneficial to all, guaranteeing both human dignity and shared prosperity”.

“May these journeys of hope never again turn into journeys of death and may the clear waters of the Mediterranean no longer be bloodied by such dramatic incidents,” he said.

The regulation and harmonisation of migration flows on a European level require the adoption of safe and legal routes. This would allow those who intend to apply for asylum to do so by travelling along regu­lar routes, without putting their lives at risk.

The opening of safe channels would empty these “boats of death” and put an end to the need for emergency approaches. It also ensures a greater guarantee of security to the host states and would save countless lives.

There is a great need for an agreement between Mediterranean states that can gua­rantee safe ports among EU nations as well as departure countries.

This could be a valid solution to prevent further lives from being lost at sea and, at the same time, would initiate safer and faster processing of asylum applications.

Regina Catrambone is a co-founder and director of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).

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