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“We’re in a Crisis of Deaths”: Migrant Death Toll Tops 900 in Mediterranean as 40 Die Off Libya

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At least 40 refugees and migrants are feared dead off of the coast of Libya after a boat carrying dozens of people en route to Europe capsized Tuesday morning in the Mediterranean Sea. According to the Libyan coast guard, some 65 migrants and refugees, mostly from Sudan, were rescued with the help of local fishermen. With Tuesday’s tragedy, the number of migrants and refugees who have lost their lives this year in the Mediterranean en route to Europe is up to 900. Meanwhile, far-right European leaders like Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini continue to criminalize refugees and migrants, as well as humanitarian aid workers who often lead search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean. We speak with Charlie Yaxley, spokesperson for the U.N. Refugee Agency.

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AMY GOODMAN: At least 40 refugees and migrants are feared dead after a boat carrying dozens of people across the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe capsized Tuesday morning off the coast of Libya. According to the Libyan coast guard, some 65 migrants and refugees, mostly from Sudan, were rescued with the help of local fishermen. The Associated Press reported at least five people were confirmed dead, including a woman and child from Morocco whose bodies were recovered near the western town of Khoms, 75 miles east of Tripoli.

With Tuesday’s tragedy, the number of migrants and refugees who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean in 2019 is up to 900. Just last month, about 150 people, including children, mostly from Africa, drowned off the coast of Libya in a separate shipwreck. According to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, rescue operations for the latest migrant shipwreck continue to be underway. The final death toll may be even higher.

This latest disaster comes as far-right European leaders, like the Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, continue to criminalize refugees and migrants, as well as humanitarian aid workers who often lead search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. This June, police in Italy arrested Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old German captain of the Sea-Watch rescue ship, after her vessel collided with an Italian border police boat when she attempted to dock at an Italian port. And in 2017, Pia Klemp, also a member of Sea-Watch, was arrested at the same port and charged with assisting so-called illegal immigration. Klemp is currently awaiting trial and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

For more, we go to Geneva, where we’re joined by Charlie Yaxley, U.N. high commissioner for refugees global spokesperson for mixed migration, Mediterranean and Africa.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Charlie Yaxley. Can you explain what just happened, this latest shipwreck, and what the casualties are?

CHARLIE YAXLEY: Well, once again, we are mourning yet another tragic incident resulting from people trying to flee the war and violence in Libya. The rescue operation is still underway. But from what we understand from our teams who were there on the ground speaking with survivors, a boat left in the early hours of yesterday morning, very soon came into distress, and appears that 40 people have now drowned on the Mediterranean.

And this is just the latest in a series of drownings for people taking these similar — similar journeys to this one. Each time, we do see a outpouring of public sympathy expressed from all corners, but we’re calling now for those sentiments to be translated into meaningful action. UNHCR has proposed a way forward. There’s a number of ways we can improve search-and-rescue capacity at sea and get refugees out of Libya so they don’t take these boats in the first place. But the situation cannot continue as it is.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain who was in this ship before the shipwreck, and explain why they couldn’t get to land.

CHARLIE YAXLEY: Well, this group is very similar to the kind of groups we often see departing from Libya. It’s a mixed group of people, of refugees and of migrants. Around a third are from refugee-producing countries. So, in the east and west of Africa, we currently have more than 15 unresolved conflicts, insecurity in different areas, particularly in places like Eritrea and Somalia and Sudan in the east, Mali and Burkina Faso in the West. The people there are fleeing ongoing fighting by armed groups and are in need of refugee protection.

At the same time, though, we do see secondary movement from countries neighboring those countries, because their asylum systems are in need of strengthening, and there needs to be strategic development assistance. When people don’t feel safe and don’t feel they’re able to make the most of economic opportunities that will allow them and their families to survive, we see a rising trend of people putting their hands in — their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers, who commit a range of human rights abuses and are responsible for putting people on these flimsy and unseaworthy boats that have often little hope of reaching dry land.

AMY GOODMAN: An Italian court ruled two weeks ago that the Spanish humanitarian ship Open Arms, which was waiting off the Italian island of Lampedusa carrying nearly 150 rescued migrants and refugees, should be allowed to dock in Italy. This was in defiance of a ban by Italy’s far-right Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. In a statement issued by his office, Salvini said, quote, “I continue and will continue to deny the landing to those who claim to bring illegal immigrants always and only in Italy.” Salvini also said he’ll continue to defend Italy’s borders and say, quote, “no to disembarking.” Can you talk about the significance, what this means for migrants at sea?

CHARLIE YAXLEY: Well, this is a concerning and regrettable trend of increasing hostility, not only towards the people taking the crossings, but also the people who seek to help them. In the past few years, NGO rescue operations have saved countless lives, thousands and thousands of lives. But the number of NGOs able to do that right now has diminished to just a small handful due to different legal and logistical restrictions being placed on them. Their role needs to be acknowledged and supported, and not criminalized nor stigmatized. There are suggestions by some that these NGOs collaborate with smugglers and aid illegal migration, but we see no evidence for that. At different times in the last year, there have been no NGO boats operating search and rescue on the central Mediterranean, and yet, actually, the average number of departures has increased. And when we look more closely at the situation, it becomes clear that it’s the push factors that people are leaving behind — the war, violence and human rights abuses, the escalating violence in Libya since April. That has a much bigger motivating factor than any kind of potential pull factor of the presence of NGO boats.

AMY GOODMAN: Pia Klemp, the German captain of a refugee rescue ship who now faces prison time in Italy after rescuing hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean, has refused to accept an award given to her in July on behalf of the city of Paris. Klemp wrote on Facebook last week that Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the city of Paris, quote, “want to award me a medal for my solidarian action in the Mediterranean Sea, because our crews 'work to rescue migrants from difficult conditions on a daily basis.' At the same time your police is stealing blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers,” Pia Klemp said. She was awarded the Grand Vermeil Medal last month alongside Carola Rackete, a fellow member of the refugee rescue organization Sea-Watch. Two years ago, Klemp’s ship was seized by authorities in an Italian port, and she was eventually charged with assisting so-called illegal immigration. She is currently awaiting trial, facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Charlie Yaxley, if you could comment on the stakes for people who are trying to help those who might die at sea, and are?

CHARLIE YAXLEY: Well, I think the frustrations — the frustrations she expresses there are understandable. I mean, NGO boats are picking up people who are in a desperate state. Let’s be clear, people don’t take these boat journeys — you know, they are aware that these journeys could often be fatal. And nobody puts their own lives and the lives of their families at risk in that way unless they feel they’re better off on the water than on the land. So, when NGOs pick people up and rescue them in the sea, their ordeal is not then over. They’re then stranded at sea for days on end, while states have often engaged in a political back-and-forth, trying to see who can most shift responsibility onto others.

I think what’s needed now is for the toxicity in the political debate to be removed and a more objective perspective to come in here. The number of arrivals reaching European shores are really down significantly. We’re no longer in a situation like we saw in 2014 and the immediate years that followed, where we saw incredibly high numbers. We are back to the precrisis levels. But yet deaths remain broadly the same. So we’re no longer in a crisis of arrivals here; we’re in a crisis of deaths. And there needs to be some soul searching about whether Europe is willing to engage with people who are seeking asylum on their doorstep.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said one in six or one in seven people die at sea? Can you explain where they are dying? What is the route they’re taking? And talk about why Libya is such a critical place for them and where they’re coming from.

CHARLIE YAXLEY: Well, the routes through North and Sub-Saharan Africa are very, very complex, but typically it’s where the smugglers and traffickers are able to carry out their actions with impunity. It’s in places that are beset by conflict. It’s in places where states often no longer have strong rule of law. They’re not able to hold people, the smugglers and traffickers, accountable. And the human trafficking is just one aspect of this. Those networks are often similarly involved in drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and also oil trafficking, as well.

So, any attempt to really address this situation will have to look at this holistically and develop a way to hold the smugglers and traffickers to account using the courts of law. And for those that are known to have sanctions against them, you know, many of these people are known, and there are ways this can be done. Last year, there were sanctions placed against some of the smugglers and traffickers in Libya. But until that happens, you know, at the same time, we need to address the root causes. There needs to be greater efforts to broker peace, so that people are not forced to flee their homes in the first place.

Now, Libya has become a center point for all this because of the violence that has plagued the country since 2011. Different militia groups have been allowed to take root, and smuggling and trafficking has become big business. So, until we see a more holistic approach, that, you know, involves strengthening security structures for states, holding smugglers and traffickers to account, and brokering peace, we’re likely to see more boat crossings in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about the 350 migrants stranded on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea who disembarked in Malta on Friday after six European countries agreed to accept them. The Ocean Viking, which is run by French charities Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée, had been in a tense standoff for two weeks as it remained in international waters after being denied permission to dock in Italy or Malta. Most of the passengers on the Ocean Viking were from Sudan and had been rescued in four separate missions. The ship was carrying around a hundred children, most of them unaccompanied. The migrants now will be relocated to Germany, France, Romania, Ireland, Portugal and Luxembourg. But that picture of the ship at sea being denied entry reminded me of back in World War II in the United States, the ship of 900 Jews that was not allowed to dock in the United States, and the ship then went back, and many of those perished. Your comment on the refusal of countries to take in people who face death, and also what the European Union is doing?

CHARLIE YAXLEY: You know, those images and the story that those people told is sadly all too familiar. You know, regardless of whether these rescued people come from refugee-producing countries or were initially migrants, at the hands of these smugglers, they suffer beatings, torture, prostitution, rape, and some are sold as slaves. So, they’ve really gone through incredibly traumatic experiences and, even if they may not be in need of asylum, may well be in need of other forms of humanitarian protection.

Now, for the European countries on the Mediterranean, it is true that they have borne a disproportionate amount of responsibility in the last few years for receiving refugees and migrants rescued on the Mediterranean. But what we need now is a system in place that gives shipmasters clarity and predictability about where they can immediately dock people after they’ve been rescued. You know, there are already some seeds of hope on how a system could work. UNHCR and IOM have proposed a model. It requires states to come forward in solidarity with those Mediterranean states and with refugees, and agree to a certain quota of people they will be willing to receive in such incidents. Discussions about this have begun. There were recent meetings in Paris and Helsinki on this. And there was a consensus that action needs to be taken, that this high loss of life on the Mediterranean cannot continue.

But, you know, time is running out for many people in Libya who are facing violence and conflict. In detention centers in Libya, we have around 3,000 people who are close to conflict areas and at risk of being caught up in the violence. A system for disembarking rescued passengers is needed now, so that the system is already in place and we’re not left in this perpetual-crisis, boat-by-boat, ad hoc approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much, Charlie Yaxley, for being with us, United Nations high commissioner for refugees global spokesperson.

When we come back, we look at the devastating fires in the Amazon and the indigenous resistance to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Stay with us.

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