As EU interior ministers gather at today’s Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council, where they will discuss the situation of refugees and other migrants making the dangerous journey across the Central Mediterranean, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) warns European leaders must stop treating people as political pawns and instead focus on saving lives.

In recent weeks, more than 1,000 refugees and other migrants have been stranded in the Central Mediterranean Sea after key EU coastal states failed to respond to their distress calls and denied requests to disembark them. This was not an isolated incident - over the past few years,  EU governments have repeatedly denied or delayed the disembarkation of people rescued by NGO search and rescue ships, leaving thousands of men, women and children stuck in dangerous limbo for days or weeks.

The longer that EU leaders wait to scale up rescue operations at sea, in full cooperation with NGOs, the more people will suffer or perish along the world’s deadliest sea migration route. So far this year, more than 1,800 people have died or gone missing attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe.

Niamh Nic Carthaigh, IRC Director of EU Policy & Advocacy, says:

“It’s inexcusable that some European leaders are choosing to treat people as political pawns and leave them stranded in desperate circumstances at sea, rather than offering them a lifeline and a safe place to disembark. These repeated incidents are a damning abdication of responsibility from states that are perfectly capable of upholding these people’s rights and treating them with dignity.

People do not risk their lives on these dangerous journeys unless they have no other choice. In the first eight months of this year, more than half of the 58,251 refugees and other migrants who arrived by sea to Italy departed from Libya - a country where people on the move are systematically subjected to horrific abuse and human rights violations.

Proposals focused on deterring people from reaching Europe that could trap them in places like Libya must be abolished. Instead, if the EU is to fulfil its moral and legal duty, prevent further suffering and avoid more political escalations, all member states must do their part to protect and uphold the rights of people on the move - including those rescued at sea.”

At today’s JHA, the European Commission will discuss its recently published Action Plan for the Central Mediterranean with interior ministers. While this plan includes some much-needed actions – including strengthening cooperation among EU states on search and rescue operations – we are alarmed by the Commission’s continued framing on deterring and preventing people from reaching safety in Europe.

The IRC is instead calling on the EU and its member states to: