United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has called on European governments to allow 507 people rescued in the Mediterranean and who remain stranded at sea to safety on land. 

151 people remain on board the Open Arms boat while 356 people more have been rescued in recent days by the Ocean Viking.

Many, the UNHCR said, were reportedly survivors of appalling abuses in Libya and from refugee-producing countries. They were in need of humanitarian assistance and some had already expressed an intention to seek international protection.

“This is a race against time,” said Vincent Cochetel, special envoy for the Central Mediterranean said.

On Tuesday, the Spanish government dismissed a request by the Open Arms asking it to allow minors on board the ship into the country. 

The NGO did not have the "legal competence or authority" to demand asylum for the minors, a minister told Spanish television.

“Storms are coming and conditions are only going to get worse. To leave people who have fled war and violence in Libya on the high seas in this weather would be to inflict suffering upon suffering. They must be immediately allowed to dock, and allowed to receive much-needed humanitarian aid.”

A port of safety should be immediately provided and responsibility shared amongst States for hosting them after they have disembarked, the UNHCR said.

Many European leaders expressed shock at the events last month when more than 50 people died in an airstrike on a detention centre in Tajoura, Libya, and as many as 150 others died in the largest Mediterranean shipwreck of 2019.

These sentiments now had to be translated into meaningful solidarity with people fleeing Libya. This included providing access to territory and asylum procedures to people seeking international protection.

Nearly 600 people died or went missing in the Central Mediterranean in 2019 and increased search and rescue capacity was needed. In this context, the role of NGO boats should be acknowledged and supported. Their efforts were saving lives, and they should not be stigmatised nor criminalised.

More efforts were needed to move refugees out of harm’s way in Libya. No one should feel they are better off risking their life, and the lives of their families, on these often fatal boat journeys. Faster and increased safe and legal pathways to asylum were needed, including evacuations and resettlement.

UNHCR reiterated that intense fighting in Libya, as well as widespread reports of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, meant it could be considered a safe port, and no one should be returned there.

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