Absence of Mediterranean rescue boats prompts death toll warning

Migrants are seen onboard the humanitarian ship Aquarius at Boiler Wharf in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Malta August 15, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

ITALY –  Thousands of migrants risk dying at sea because of a clampdown on NGO rescue ships, aid agencies have warned, in what has been the longest period of their absence in the central Mediterranean since they began operating in late 2015.

Since 26 August, no NGO rescue vessel has operated on the main migration routes between north Africa and southern Europe. Anti-immigration policies by the Maltese and Italian governments, which have closed their ports to the vessels, have driven the sharp decrease in rescue missions. People seeking asylum are still attempting the risky crossing. The last time the Mediterranean was without NGO rescue boats was from 28 June to 8 July 2018, and in those days more than 300 migrants died at sea.

The death toll has fallen in the past year, but the number of those drowning as a proportion of arrivals in Italy has risen sharply in the past few months, with a possibility of dying during the crossing now three times higher. According to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2,383 migrants died as a result of shipwreck in 2017, compared with 100,308 arrivals to Italy. In 2018, with NGO boats under pressure from Maltese and Italian authorities, the number of victims has already reached 1,130, compared with just 20,319 who have landed in the country.

Of the 10 NGO rescue boats that were operating in the Mediterranean, three are being detained at the port of Valletta, Malta, in a dispute over flag registration. Vessels operated by the Open Arms NGO, meanwhile, left the central Mediterranean last month because of the closure of the Italian ports, with no date set for their return. (The Guardian)…[+]