On World Refugee Day, the UN Human Rights Office in Brussels called on EU member States to prioritize saving the lives of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Between 2014 and June 2019, at least 9,241 deaths have been recorded, as estimated by the International Migration Organization, national authorities and media sources, while at the same time in recent years, NGO boats trying to save the lives of those in trouble at sea have been increasingly removed or rendered unable to operate, and hundreds of Europeans have been arrested, investigated, or threatened with prison or fines for trying to help migrants and refugees.
As of 1 June 2019, only seven out of the 24 humanitarian rescue ships operated by civil society organizations in the Mediterranean were still active, as recorded by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.
The UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe urged EU member States to urgently strengthen search and rescue operations and ensure rapid and safe disembarkation in a coordinated manner.
States have a heightened duty to protect the right of everyone to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, the right to leave any country and the right to life, as established by international human rights and humanitarian law. Individual human dignity should be at the centre of reforms of the European Common Asylum System, currently being considered by EU member States.
These should include setting up effective EU-wide systems that enable swift support for those in vulnerable situations, including victims of violence and trafficking for purposes of sexual or labour exploitation.
"Disrupting illicit smuggling and trafficking is critical, but can never justify charging individuals or organizations with crimes simply for saving lives at sea, or providing food or shelter to refugees and migrants," said Birgit Van Hout, the UN Human Rights Regional Representative for Europe.
"The increasing stigmatization, harassment and intimidation of activists and ordinary citizens is alarming," she added.
"The criminalization of people who are simply trying to help fellow human beings has a chilling impact on society as a whole.
By making sure its member States keep space for civil society open, and by condemning approaches that target human rights defenders, the EU can be a force for good", she said.