The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, has called for an expansion of search-and-rescue operations after a significant increase in the number of refugees and asylum seekers attempting to cross the central Mediterranean to Europe. Turk stated that there has been a “steep increase in the number of desperate people putting their lives at grave risk” and urged for solidarity with Italy, which has traditionally received the majority of arrivals. The Italian coastguard has rescued around 2,000 people on the route since Friday, prompting Italy’s right-wing government to impose a six-month state of emergency to deal with the situation.
Turk also called on Italy’s government to scrap a law passed this year that restricted civilian search-and-rescue operations. The UN human rights chief’s appeal came a day after the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that over 400 people had drowned in the central Mediterranean during the first three months of this year. The IOM documented 441 refugee deaths along the route during January, February and March 2023, compared with 742 in 2017 and 446 in 2015.
IOM head Antonio Vitorino described the persisting humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean as intolerable and called for more search-and-rescue operations by state authorities. The European Union border agency Frontex reported that three times as many people sought to reach the EU across the Mediterranean in the first three months of 2023 compared with a year before. Frontex stated that nearly 28,000 people had arrived via the Central Mediterranean from the start of the year until the end of March, three times as many as in the same period in 2022.
Frontex also reported that organised crime groups took advantage of better weather and political volatility in some countries of departure to try to smuggle as many people as possible across the Central Mediterranean from Tunisia and Libya. The Italian government announced a state of emergency on Wednesday following a “sharp rise” in arrivals across the Mediterranean, a move that will allow it to send back refugees more quickly. Rome has asked the EU to do more to stop sea arrivals, highlighting how refugee crossings have returned to the top of the bloc’s political agenda as global mobility picked up last year from COVID pandemic lows.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also announced on Thursday that it was scaling up humanitarian assistance and protection services along the route, including psychological support, first aid, family reunification services and help with disembarkation in Italy. The situation in the central Mediterranean highlights the ongoing challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers attempting to reach Europe, and the need for continued efforts to provide support and protection for those making such journeys.