There was a need to radically increase air surveillance along the Libyan coast and further out to spot any fragile vessels at sea and safely prepare a rescue, The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg said.

In his latest human rights comment published today, Mr Hammarberg said that the imperative principle of "rescue at sea" must not only be respected for those close to a sinking ship;

“In view of the ongoing military operations it would be difficult to argue that there are no resources for such reconnaissance activity.

“Indeed, the escalation of the armed conflict has contributed to the acute situation of the sub-Saharan migrants.”

 Mr Hammarberg said that European governments and institutions have more responsibility for this crisis than they have demonstrated so far.

“Their silence and passivity are difficult to accept.

“When preventing migrants from coming has become more important than saving lives, something has gone dramatically wrong,” he said.

The commissioner pointed out that least another 150 persons drowned, while others were saved this week. In a similar tragedy in May, about 600 persons lost their lives and there were other reports about missing vessels with migrants on board.

It likely that the death toll for this year has now reached 1 400, or perhaps even more.

Mr Hammarberg said that the drowning tragedies in the Mediterranean were not a new phenomenon; there have been many such incidents over recent years.

“While coast guards and fishermen from Italy and other countries have rescued many, European governments have tried to discourage the arrivals through push-backs and other strong deterrent measures.

“This has not prevented people from trying to reach Europe, but it has made the journey more dangerous and given the smugglers a reason to increase their prices.

“The boats have become more and more overcrowded and more of them have capsized.”

Mr Hammarberg wrote that smugglers took on board too many migrants in unsuitable boats - putting lives at risk. They did not accompany the boats, but asked some of the migrants to be in charge of the journey.

“Those who have drowned were mainly from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and other sub-Saharan countries.

“Many of them had grounds for seeking international protection. A number of them were trapped in Libya, sometimes as a result of European agreement with Gaddafi aimed at preventing migrants from fleeing Libya and returning them to that country when intercepted.

“Some of them were in prison when the armed conflict started; others were in hiding.

“The war made them even more vulnerable as the Gaddafi regime recruited mercenaries from sub-Saharan countries and the opposition tended to see black Africans as enemies.

“It has also been reported that Gaddafi loyalists are now forcing migrants on to these ramshackle vessels in retaliation for the international military intervention in Libya.

“Gone are the days when Gaddafi co-operated with European governments - in exchange for generous aid and investments - to prevent even the most desperate asylum seekers from reaching Europe,” Mr Hammarberg said.

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