In response to a staggering number of boat migrants rescued and killed in the Mediterranean Sea in recent days, International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu has today called for more concerted action to address the issue of the criminal gangs who illegally organize the unregulated sea passages, putting thousands of lives at risk.
It has been estimated in the past several days alone, more than 2,000 migrants have been rescued from the Mediterranean and hundreds have lost their lives. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 2014 was a peak year with more than 200,000 people entering Europe via the Mediterranean and over 3,500 lives lost. So far this year, more than 5.600 migrants already been rescued, representing a 50% increase from the same time last year.
“We do not seek to prevent migration. People have the human right to migrate. But it is time to stop illegal, unregulated passage arranged by people smugglers. Not only do they put the lives of the migrants in danger, they also endanger the rescue services and merchant shipping which take part in the rescue operations. Something needs to be done against the smugglers or the situation will not improve. It is placing an intolerable strain on rescue services and on merchant vessels,” Sekimizu said.
Sekimizu noted appreciation the efforts made by Italian and other authorities in the most recent rescue operations over the weekend, but drew increasing number of unsafe, irregular and illegal sea passages in the Mediterranean during 2014.
“This is a serious issue for IMO and a humanitarian tragedy. There is a strong tradition of search and rescue at sea and this will continue but the search and rescue services provided by a number of countries are overstretched. Even with the contribution of the Italian Navy and Italian Coast Guard, more than 600 merchant ships were diverted last year to go to the support of persons in distress at sea. This is beyond acceptable limits and without the Italian efforts many more would have died. The efforts of Italian rescuers – and others – are greatly appreciated but we have reached the point where we need to focus more effort on the prevention side.”
To combat the issue, the IMO will be hosting an UN inter-agency meeting on the the issue in March, which will also involve several intergovernmental organizations, Member States and shipping industry stakeholders.
The meeting will seek to build on the momentum gained at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Dialogue on Protection Challenges held in early December 2014, seeking develop potential ways forward both by individual agencies and through the Global Migration Group.
Sekimizu added that consideration should be given to establishing a database of incidents to help law enforcement agencies to identify, arrest, prosecute and punish smugglers. All important is greater control over coastal zones and ports so that people do not travel on board unsafe boats, he said.
“I firmly believe that there is scope for greater efforts by the international community to better manage the process of migration,” Sekimizu said.
Also Thursday, the EU revealed plans to step up its assistance to Italy in dealing issue, particularly to help it deal with the current high migratory pressures in Lampedusa, a small Italian island that has become the epicenter of boat migration in the Mediterranean. The European Commission said that it would be extending its central migration joint operation Triton until at least the end of 2015, and also awarded €13.7 million in emergency funding from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) to Italy.