In deciding to cut back on state-led Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, EU policy makers, agencies and member states – Italy in particular – created the conditions that led to massive loss of life in the Mediterranean, including the more than 1200 deaths caused by the 12 and 18 April shipwrecks. The gap in SAR capabilities left by the termination of the Italian Navy’s Mare Nostrum operation (MN) and its (non-)replacement by the more limited Frontex-led Triton operation shifted the burden of extremely dangerous search and rescue operations onto large merchant ships, which are ill-fitted to conduct them. This ultimately led assistance to become deadly.

By dissecting minutes of political meetings and previously unreleased operational documents, the report provides strong evidence that these decisions were taken in all knowledge of their deadly consequences, by policy makers who prioritized deterrence over human lives. The forecast that cutting back state-led SAR means from the area located near the Libyan coast would lead to more deaths at sea was formulated repeatedly by Members of the European Parliament (MEP), the human rights community, and by Frontex itself. Moreover, as demonstrated by spatial and statistical analysis, the deadly effects of this policy began to manifest themselves already in the first months of 2015, when a peak in the mortality rate of migrants’ crossings was reached due to the gap in SAR capabilities. Neither these signals nor the calls that followed each case of death at sea were heeded to.

The two successive April shipwrecks were thus the predicted and predictable consequence of the EU’s policy of non-assistance. This policy and its effects must be qualified as an instance of institutionalised neglect, leading EU member states, policy makers and agencies to kill by omission.

On 29 April 2015, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, admitted that “it was a serious mistake to bring the Mare Nostrum operation to an end. It cost human lives.”   While we argue the term “mistake” is inadequate, since the ending of Mare Nostrum was implemented knowingly, we concur with Juncker’s that this policy led to massive loss of life. While it still remains to be ascertained if this might imply a legal responsibility for EU member states, policy makers and agencies, it is clear, however, that they must be held accountable on the political and moral level. EU institutions should be accountable for the life and death of the people affected by their policy choices, independently of their nationality, and independently of whether these deaths have occurred on EU territory. An investigation should thus be conducted at the level of EU member states, institutions and agencies to determine which specific actors led to this policy decision being taken and implemented.

A key actor in the negotiations and planning that led to this deadly policy shift was Frontex, the European border agency. Frontex has a key role in providing intelligence on developments at the EU’s external borders, and supporting EU member states in planning and conducting joint operations. However, as the report shows, while the information on the increased risk that the ending of MN would entail for migrants was available to the agency, Frontex officials did not underline these risks to it official partners, nor did they propose operational changes to respond to this increased risk. The internal and external dynamics of Frontex in leading to this policy should thus be granted particular attention.

Acknowledging the deadly effects of the EU’s migration policy should lead to a broader reconsideration of the types of responses that have been provided to the phenomenon of illegalised migrants’ crossings into the EU and their deaths at sea. The recurrent framing of the issue as a security problem leads to emphasise repressive policies directed at reinforcing border controls, combating smugglers and disregarding or deporting migrants once they have arrived on EU territory. While our report demonstrates the lethal effects of these policies, other policy options need to be considered. This is a matter of urgency especially now when we witness a novel surge in crossings in the central Mediterranean. While it is too early to predict if and how this trend will continue over the next months,   what is certain is that in the period January-March 2016 arrivals have increased significantly compared to 2015,   and 343 deaths have been reported already this year by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).   The fact that on 12 April 2016, one year after the start of the Black Week, 2.154 people were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard during 17 different Search and Rescue operations, to which a commercial ship has also contributed, shows that the conditions leading to migrants’ deaths at sea are still in place.  

In the absence of a major policy shift, the presence of rescue means adequate in type and number to the challenges posed by SAR operations in the Mediterranean is an urgent necessity that cannot be ignored by European member states and EU institutions. In EU-led operation, the priority should be given to rescue at sea, not border control or combating smugglers. The report shows, however, that even in the presence of the record means deployed by the Mare Nostrum operation during 2014 and of the outstanding effort by several nongovernmental organisations in 2015, the danger of crossing remained high. Even when willing to provide professional rescue, both state- and non-state- actors have remained trapped in the “half-bridge” conundrum that forces migrants to resort to precarious means of crossings and often ruthless smugglers. This will continue to be the case as long as the EU’s migration policy bars migrants from legal access to EU territory.

Only a fundamental reorientation from a policy that seeks to select and block migrants’ movements to one that would grant legal and safe passage, would make both smugglers and the very need to rescue migrants at sea obsolete. The policy options for the immediate term exist, such as a substantial relaxation of visa restrictions ambitious resettlement programmes, and the lifting of carrier sanctions. In the longer term, what is needed is a policy that takes the reality of people’s movement across borders as the starting point to enshrine a fundamental right to mobility. This may be an ambitious agenda in the current political climate, but it is the only one that can stop the list of more than 20,000 recorded cases of deaths at sea since the beginning of the 1990 from growing ever longer.