LONDON, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A new sea rescue operation is to be launched in May to try to reduce the number of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers killed making the treacherous crossing from Africa to Europe, medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) and Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) said on Thursday.
Last year was the deadliest on record when more than 3,400 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean, MSF said.
This year, the death toll is expected to be even higher, MSF added. There is less help available for boats in distress since the Italian navy’s search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, closed down in November last year because of a lack of funds.
Hundreds have already died this year, including 29 migrants who died of hypothermia in February aboard Italian coast guard vessels after being picked up from a boat adrift near Libya.
“No one deserves to die, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that those who feel compelled to undertake this treacherous sea crossing in makeshift vessels do not drown,” MOAS director Martin Xuereb said.
MOAS, an international organisation devoted to preventing catastrophes at sea, was founded by entrepreneurs Christopher and Regina Catrambone, and last year rescued some 3,000 people.
“Europe has turned its back on people fleeing some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,” Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF’s general director said.
The crossings are organised by criminal gangs operating mostly from Libya, who pack people onto ill-equipped and rickety boats.
More than 20,000 people are estimated to have died in the last two decades, many of them escaping violence or persecution in countries including Eritrea, Somalia and more recently Syria, according to MOAS.
The joint search, rescue and medical aid operation will run from May to October, when thousands of people are expected to risk the crossing.
Emergency teams will circle the routes most frequently used by boats making the crossing, waiting to intervene if they spot trouble.
When the Italian Mare Nostrum mission wound down, the European Commission launched a much smaller rescue mission off Italy. Dubbed Operation Triton, it will run at least until the end of 2015.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Lisa Anderson.)
© 2015 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.