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Mediterranean search-and-rescue effort overwhelmed by migrant crossings

(Credit: Migrant Offshore Aid Station Foundation)

Search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean are overwhelmed by the changing tactics of migrant smugglers, according to the Migrant Offshore Aid Station Foundation (MOAS).

The group said travel is “more dangerous than ever” on the same day that as many as 100 people went missing after a rubber boat sank 20 miles off the coast of Libya. There are six recorded deaths and more are expected. They add to the 240 people who died crossing the Mediterranean between Monday and Wednesday this week.

This year is already the deadliest year for migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. More and more migrants are crossing to Italy on unseaworthy rubber boats. Both the Red Cross-backed MOAS and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned that it may get worse.

“The combination of heavier loads and inferior quality is a recipe for disaster,” said MOAS Head of Operations Ian Ruggier, in a statement. “Rescue assets have had to deal with increased challenges. There is no doubt that the vessels are built to last a few miles to see people beyond Libyan territorial waters.”

Smugglers are changing tactics. The deal between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flow to Greece saw the focus of migration turn to the route between Libya and Italy. The pace is picking up. More than twice as many people arrived in Italy than last November. And there are still two weeks left in the month.

(Photo Credit: MOAS)

(Credit: Migrant Offshore Aid Station Foundation)

MOAS reported that crossings are happening in large waves. Previously, single boats departed at a slow pace. It made it easier to track and rescue any boats in distress. It also ensured that better boats were used. But a spike in demand and competition is causing more trips.

“The conditions are terrible and people keep putting out to sea anyway, which says a lot about how desperate they are,” Doctors Without Borders Italy President Loris De Filippi, told Reuters.

Because of that, it is “almost certain” that the true death toll is higher than current estimates, according to MOAS. Its crews are spotting vessels in the middle of the night that departed early in the morning. There are likely many others that go unseen or disappear if something goes wrong.

Shutting down the path to Greece is not deterring enough people from making the crossing. The record high for deaths set in 2015 was surpassed at the end of October. More than 4,300 migrants and refugees died in the Mediterranean this year, according to the U.N.

MOAS rescued and assisted 19,000 people since June. Doctors Without Borders rescued another 17,000 people between April and the start of November. Other rescue groups and coast guard units from affected countries aided even more people.

“Crossings in the Mediterranean will not be stopped by creating more borders or building walls and fences. There is no force-based solution to migration. People will always find a way to come to Europe. There is an urgent need to manage the phenomenon rather than try to hide behind razor wire. For this to occur European leaders must stand up and be counted,” MOAS Director Pete Sweetnam said in a statement.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]