The European Commission wants to introduce a code of conduct on migrant sea rescues and disembarkation, the European Parliament heard on Monday.
During a sitting of the EP’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), MEPs heard from a number of stakeholders in the central Mediterranean migration crisis.
The migration situation has been cast in the national spotlight in recent weeks after both Malta and Italy declared their ports unsafe for migrant disembarkation.
Malta has called for a €100 million humanitarian mission to Libya, arguing that people in the country are being encouraged to cross the sea because of the dire situation they find themselves in.
On Monday, Martin Schieffer from the Commission’s Migration and Home Affairs Directorate General said Brussels wanted member states to sit around a table and agree on a set of guidelines on search and rescue at sea to put an end to different interpretations of the existing rules.
This, he said, would require "political agreement" between EU countries, and he conceded that talks on migration-related matters had run hot and cold between member states over the years.
Schieffer said search and rescue was not a Commission competence, but that Brussels was engaging with frontier member states to offer help were it could.
"The Commission is trying to find a harmonised approach with member states for search and rescue and disembarkation but I reiterate that this is a member state competence,” he said.
Fabrice Leggeri, who heads the EU’s border’s agency Frontex, told MEPs that by last week, they had documented 2,800 migrant arrivals in Italy. This was a 400% increase over 2019. In Malta arrivals so far stood at 1,135.
He said that due to the COVID-19 outbreak as well as a raging civil war, the Libyan authorities ability to control migrant departures and to patrol its own waters had been seriously hamstrung.
Sophie Magennis, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, gave a snapshot of the "complex and critical" human rights situation in Libya today.
Some 650,000 foreign workers are stuck in war ton Libya, most are economic migrants, but others need protection, she said.
So far this year, over 800 "persons of concern to UNHCR" have disembarked in Libya, she said.
This was coupled with a disruption of many migration relation services. Detention centres, for instance, had crumbled with the number of migrants in managed detention dropping from 5,000 last year, to 1,500 at present.
In order for things to improve, an end to the Libyan conflict is needed, along with a proper judicial review.
Inma Vazquez of international aid organisation Doctors Without Borders said migrants were one of the most vulnerable groups in Libya today.
The escalation of violence, she said, is putting huge pressure on Libyan medical facilities, which are already struggling to cope with the Coronavirus outbreak.
Hospitals across the capital were either being hit by militia, or struggling to operate without adequate COVID-19 protective gear, she said.
Julian Pahlke from humanitarian NGO Sea Eye, which operates the search and rescue vessel Alan Kurdi, said that as recently as this past weekend Libyan authorities had fired shots around its volunteers.
“People we were trying to rescue panicked, they jumped in the sea, we had cases of hypothermia,” he said.
As Malta and Italy declared their ports closed, migrants on board the Alan Kurdi had attempted suicide out of sheer desperation.
Italy and Malta, he said, must obey the law of the sea and international humanitarian obligations.
In closing, Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights said not responding to distress calls or delaying rescues put lives at risk. Handing over responsibility to Libyan authorities or instructing other vessels to do this, was also an abdication of a state’s responsibility, she said.
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