15 rights groups are calling on the European Union, and Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon and Turkey, to ensure legal and safe pathways for asylum and to comply with their legal obligations by ceasing practices of refoulement and non-assistance at sea, where scores have died in recent weeks. The lack of protection, high risk of deportation, and deteriorating conditions in Turkey and Lebanon are driving refugees onto the Eastern Mediterranean route to Europe, where they are faced with deadly non-assistance policies from several European states.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, Crisis and Hate Speech Force Refugees onto Deadly Migratory Routes
In the last weeks, a series of tragic incidents in the Eastern Mediterranean shed light on lesser-known migratory routes. In the most recent case, following a shipwreck off Syria of a boat that had departed from Lebanon heading to Italy, at least 94 people died.
In another recent case, 250 people who had departed from Lebanon for Italy were left at sea for about a week without food and water before being rescued by an NGO. In another incident, a four-year-old girl named Loujin died of thirst on board of a vessel with 60 people who had departed from Lebanon to reach Italy and was left at sea for 10 days, and were rescued by a merchant vessel. Finally, six people, including three children and one mother, died while attempting to reach Italy from Turkey. On 20 September 2022, Alarm Phone reported about 53 people in distress in the Greek SAR zone, including 5 children, who had departed from Lebanon and had been at sea for 4 days. They were eventually pushed back to Turkey.
These incidents take place as people are forced to embark on increasingly dangerous migration journeys due to the systemic violence, pushbacks and dangers encountered on other routes and the lack of legal channels for migration. Greece is on the frontline of this border violence, with countless evidence of Greek authorities beating, detaining, and abandoning people at sea while clinging to life rafts, while Cyprus has, on multiple occasions, pushed back boats arriving from Lebanon. At the same time, these tragic incidents are a direct result of unlawful and repeated policies of non-assistance at sea by Malta, Greece, Cyprus and Italy.
A deadly and repeated policy of non-assistance at sea
Examples of States’ non-assistance at sea in the Mediterranean happen every day. The fact that no one intervenes is an infringement of the right to life, and of maritime law, which obliges any State, any ship, to rescue any person in distress regardless of their legal status and to bring them to a safe port. It is unfortunately a reality already seen on several occasions in the Mediterranean. For example, in 2011, maybe the most notorious case of a “left-to-die boat“, a boat departed from Libya was left to wander at sea for 14 days and almost all the occupants had died on board.
As for the cargo ships, there is a policy of dissuasion and criminalization of merchant ships that intervene to rescue people in distress at sea, as for example the case of the Danish merchant ship Maersk-Etienne, which remained blocked for more than a month in August 2020 with nearly 30 rescued people on board while Malta was refusing to allow them to disembark.
Lack of protection, high risk of deportation and deteriorating conditions in Turkey and Lebanon leading to ever more dangerous routes
The deteriorating living conditions for refugees in both Turkey and Lebanon are pushing people to attempt the long sea crossing from Turkey and Lebanon to Italy, as the pressure to leave has never been more urgent.
Both countries are dealing with severe economic crises, resentment against refugees is on the rise and is leading to an increase in deportations to Syria both from Turkey and Lebanon. The latter announced in July 2022 a plan to return 15,000 Syrian refugees every month to Syria, while Turkey is proposing to deport 1 million Syrians to Northern Syria and it is resorting to daily deportations, including of Syrians who survived push backs by Greece to Turkey.
Lebanon economic and financial crisis is one of the worst ever: the country’s currency collapsed, and prices are spiralling. The UN Special Rapporteur cited in the latest report that over 80% of the population has been pushed into poverty since 2019 and 6 out of 10 people would leave the country if they could. Turkey is facing an equally severe economic crisis, and refugees are among those most affected by its impacts. In both countries, they become targets of violent attacks and tension with the local population. They are harassed online and on the streets. Just in the last months, a Syrian boy was attacked by a group of men in Lebanon for carrying some bread, while in Turkey the Syrian teenager Fares Elali was stabbed to death for a dispute at work.
Actions are urgently needed
In such a context, it is more urgent than ever to ensure legal and safe pathways for migration. EuroMed Rights and the undersigned organisations demand that:
- Malta immediately stops its policy of non-assistance at sea. The omission of rescue operations in an area under the State’s responsibility leads to lethal incidents as the ones reported above.
- Cyprus and Greece abide by EU and international obligations to respect the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement, provides assistance to boats in distress at sea by carrying out search and rescue operations, providing access to its territory, the asylum procedure and adequate reception conditions, and immediately stops all pushbacks and any ill-treatment against people seeking protection in their territories
- The EU and its Member States open legal pathways for migration to prevent people from risking their lives on dangerous migratory journeys.
- Turkey respects the principle of non-refoulement and international human rights law by stopping the forced return of refugees and asylum seekers to Syria and adopts policies that guarantee the necessary protection of Syrian refugees in Turkey;
- Lebanon abides by its obligations under international treaties, including its obligation not to deport or forcibly return individuals at risk of torture. This means immediately halting arbitrary deportations of Syrians from Lebanon to Syria and adopting policies that guarantee the necessary protection of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. UNHCR in Lebanon should fulfil its responsibilities in the care and protection of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
- Access Centre for human Rights (ACHR)
- AMERA International
- Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon
- ATFD – Tunisian Association of the Democratic Women
- CIHRS – Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
- Citizens Assembly
- Lebanese Centre for Human Rights (CLDH)
- KISA – Action for Equality, Support, Antiracism
- IHD – Human Rights Association Turkey
- EuroMed Rights
- Iridia (Spain)
- Human Rights League (France)
- Greek Council for Refugees (GCR)
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