European Union countries have been urged not to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to deny migrants a safe place to land.
More than 45 migrants, including several children, have died off the coast of Libya, says the UN refugee council.
This year, over 17,000 people have arrived in Italy and Malta by boat from Libya and Tunisia, a threefold increase compared to 2019, according to the UNHCR.
The boat, which was carrying more than 80 refugees, capsized after the engine exploded. More than 30 survivors, mainly from Senegal, Mali, Chad and Ghana, were rescued by local fishermen, but the deaths marked the deadliest episode for refugees leaving Libya this year.
While experts are unsure of what has caused the rise in migrants seeking to make the dangerous crossing, one explanation could be the ongoing conflict in Libya which has seen an intensification since the beginning of this year.
The attempt by the renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar in January to topple the UN-recognised government resulted in thousands of migrants being displaced.
Even as Haftar’s forces have been pushed back they left behind significant amounts of explosives and hidden mines likely forcing many to attempt the dangerous journey to Italy or Malta.
When the pandemic struck Libya, in addition to the increased conflict, it resulted in higher food insecurity which has left vulnerable populations, in particular, migrants in dire need of food assistance.
These factors are likely pushing migrants to seek safety.
The UNHCR urged Mediterranean nations “to strengthen the current search and rescue capacity to respond to distress calls.”
So far this year, the Libyan state has rescued more than 7,000 people, returning them back to the country.
The UNHCR estimates that at least 302 migrants have died making the crossing, however, the number of dead is believed to be much higher.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, under the guise of public health, some European nations have implemented policies that have reinforced the hostile climate towards migrant arrivals.
Italy, one of the country’s that was hardest hit by the coronavirus, declared its ports “unsafe” in April and announced that ports would no longer accept migrants until the end of the emergency measures.
Malta, another main entry point for migrants, soon followed suit declaring that it will no longer rescue stricken migrant boats and that the country could not guarantee a safe place for them.
The UNHCR has urged countries not to use Covid-19 “as an excuse to deny people access to all forms of international protection.”
Earlier this year, Malta and Italy refused to take migrants that had been rescued by cargo ship, resulting in food supplies and water running dangerously low.
Alarm Phone, a charity dedicated to helping migrants stranded at sea, accused the EU and Malta of leaving people to die in the Mediterranean in April of this year when a boat was stranded with 63 people on board.
“All authorities have failed to intervene, using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to dramatically breach the law of the sea as well as human rights and refugee conventions,” said the human rights organisation in a statement.
According to testimonies from people on the boat, twelve died. One of the survivors recalled, “We shouted for help and made signs. Three people tried to swim to this big boat as it started moving away. They drowned. We made signs to the aircraft with the phones and we held the baby up to show we were in distress.”
“By deciding not to proceed with a rescue and not to ensure the disembarkation in a place of safety, the Maltese government becomes responsible for having facilitated the illegal push-back of the people in distress,” said Alarm Phone.
The Maltese army, using privately owned shipping trawlers, has been engaged in secret operations to push back migrants towards Libya, attempting to avoid the political fallout from such operations.
The UNHCR has expressed concern about a “failure to assist and coordinated pushbacks of migrant boats in the central Mediterranean.”
EU member states might not be united in sharing the migrant burden equally, however, one thing that has united them is what some have called the militarisation of the EU borders - this has meant deadly consequences for migrants.