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The 28-nation European Union has told member states that expressing regret over the latest migrant tragedy was no substitute for action. Some 200 migrants were feared drowned when their vessel sank off the Libyan coast.
One NGO helping to save shipwrecked migrants in the Mediterranean Sea is the medical charity Doctors Without Borders. DW has been talking to the head of their German section, Florian Westphal.
DW: What does the tragedy tell us about search and rescue capabilities off the Mediterranean coast?
Florian Westphal: It is still not sufficient. There have been improvements since early May, but obviously improvements from a very low level because before May there was virtually nothing in existence dedicated to search and rescue. Now we have a lot more ships operational in the area, but unfortunately and tragically that doesn’t seem to be enough.
What more should European countries be doing to deal with the refugee crisis?
In the short term, they need to critically reexamine their search and rescue capacity – the ships they have put into the Mediterranean – and increase their effort if that is what’s needed. In the medium to long term, they really need to look at their policy. The problem is European Union policy because it pushes people to the seas. It doesn’t leave them with any choice other than to take this extremely risky route via Libya, or on the other side of the Mediterranean via Turkey and Greece. What the EU needs to do is to create safe and legal means to reach Europe – for people on the move – that then allows them to seek security and safety in Europe and – if they want to do so – to ask for asylum. There needs to be a real policy change. This is not fundamentally a question of increasing search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean Sea.
Would that not encourage more people to come? Do you think that is something the European Union is prepared to do at this point in time?
The EU and, more specifically, its member states have made commitments – including under international law – to grant refuge to people who seek protection from persecution, from war. Secondly, while I would not deny that this presents a burden for European Union countries I think we ought to put it into perspective and compare it to the burden which many African countries are bearing – countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, which have been hosting hundreds of thousands if not millions of refugees from neighboring countries. So if these countries can make that kind of effort, I don’t think it is asking too much of wealthier European Union states to also make a comparable effort.
Before we get that far, what is undermining efforts to deal with this crisis?
I think the European Union is still not showing the political will to ensure that the safety and security of people on the run comes first. That has to be more important than anything else – and certainly more important than any consideration of securing borders and putting up fences that make it even more difficult for people to reach safety and security here in Europe.
What is the latest on the rescue operation off the Libyan coast?
It appears that the Irish ship that was involved in the rescue operation on Wednesday afternoon and throughout the whole of the night is on its way to Sicily with quite a large number of survivors, several hundred, it seems. Our ship The Dignity which was there for Doctors Without Borders has also taken some people on board and treated them. Meanwhile rescue operations in other places in the Mediterranean continue. The other ship we run there picked up 80 people from another vessel that had left Libya and was in distress.
What health problems are the migrants facing?
Quite a number of them are dehydrated; they may also be seasick. A lot of them have been exposed to severe repression, torture even, in Libya. A number of them are really traumatized. So they don’t just need physical support, but mental support as well. We try to provide this not just on board our ships, but also after arrival in Sicily as well.
Florian Westphal is the head of the German section of Doctors Without Borders