NGOs operating rescue boats in the Mediterranean called Wednesday for the EU to resume search and rescue activities to help them respond to the summer influx of migrants.
SOS Mediterranee, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Sea-Watch have been recovering thousands of people in overcrowded boats between North Africa and Italy in recent weeks.
In a joint statement, the NGOs call on "EU member and associated states to provide an adequate, state-led, dedicated and proactive search and rescue fleet in the central Mediterranean, as well as a rapid and adequate response to all distress calls, and a predictable disembarkation mechanism for rescued persons."
The EU ended its controversial anti-human trafficking operation in the Mediterranean in 2020, replacing it with Operation Irini, which focuses on upholding the UN arms embargo on Libya.
Rescuing migrants has since been left to the discretion of states, but NGOs complain that countries ignore distress calls or even work with Libyan authorities to send migrants back.
The central Mediterranean is the world's deadliest migration route, with nearly 20,000 deaths and disappearances since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
MSF's Geo Barents vessel is currently carrying 659 people, including more than 150 minors, but despite requests to Italy and Malta, no destination port has yet been assigned to them.
Ocean Viking, run by SOS Méditerranée, disembarked 387 people in the Italian port of Salerno on Sunday, while the ship Sea-Watch 3 disembarked 438 people in Taranto on Saturday, but only after days of waiting.
Italy has recorded more than 42,000 migrant landings since Jan. 1, compared with nearly 30,000 in the same period last year.
The far-right parties, which are expected to win the September 25 elections, are calling for "a naval blockade" to prevent these landings.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigration party La Lega, is expected on Thursday on the small island of Lampedusa, the arrival point for many migrant boats.
NGOs, including MSF, have been prosecuted in Italy, while their ships are regularly seized for not meeting technical standards.
In a case involving Sea-Watch, the European Court of Justice ruled this week that ports could not detain humanitarian ships for carrying more people than expected, insisting on the fundamental duty to help those in distress at sea.
The German-based group welcomed the ruling: "So ships will continue to do what they do best: Save people instead of being arbitrarily stuck in port."
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