9 July 2018

Africa: Deaths on Mediterranean Rise as Anti-migrant Attitudes Harden

The U.N. refugee agency says would-be migrants continue to die trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The agency says anti-migrant attitudes are complicating efforts to save sinking boats.

The U.N. refugee agency says asylum seekers and migrants continue to die in the Mediterranean, despite a sharp decline in the numbers reaching European shores.

In the first six months of this year, the UNHCR says 45,700 asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Europe, while more than 1,000 have either died or disappeared at sea.

The agency says the high loss of life shows the urgent need to strengthen search and rescue capacities in the region.

But, UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley says non-government organizations that can play a crucial role in sea rescues are being discouraged from helping out.

Yaxley tells VOA it is critical that any boat in the vicinity of a vessel in distress should be allowed to do that.

"If we have any threats of legal action or potential repercussions hanging over boats rescuing people at sea, then the very principle itself would potentially come under risk," said Yaxley. "You may see ship masters wavering over responding to distress calls. That is a dire situation, not only for refugees and migrants, but for anybody who is in distress at sea."

Recently, Italy and Malta have refused to allow boatloads of refugees and migrants rescued at sea to disembark in their ports, stranding the boats at sea for days.

The peak season for attempted sea crossings has just begun. Yaxley says saving lives must be the key priority. He warns a reduction in search and rescue efforts will lead to further loss of life, as unscrupulous smugglers lure desperate people to risk their lives crossing the sea in flimsy, unseaworthy vessels.

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