The policies of EU nations, including Italy and Great Britain, are to blame for the deaths of more than 700 migrants trying to enter Europe across the Mediterranean since June, Amnesty International has said.
The charity’s report, titled Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Europe fails refugees and migrants in the Central Mediterranean, claims 564 people were found dead or reported missing in June and a further 157 in July.
Matteo de Bellis, researcher on asylum and migration at Amnesty, said: “Despite a drop in the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean in recent months, the number of deaths at sea has surged.
“Responsibility for the mounting death toll falls squarely on European governments who are more concerned with keeping people out than they are with saving lives,” he added.
Amnesty puts the surge down to Italy’s change in policy since the formation of a right-wing populist government determined to crack down on illegal immigration in June.
That month, Italy began refusing to allow migrant vessels to disembark its passengers.
That included the Aquarius, a rescue vessel carrying 630 people including children, pregnant women and several injured people suffering from chemical burns and hypothermia.
Further refusals followed as Italy’s stance hardened, meaning Rome, according to the report, breached the law of the sea and its obligations under international human rights law and refugee law.
The policy has also seen a doubling of the number of people held in overcrowded detention centres in Libya, from around 4,400 in March to more than 10,000 – including around 2,000 women and children – at the end of July.
Virtually all of them were taken to the centres after being picked up at sea and returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard, which is equipped, trained and supported by European governments.
The report states that in Libya: “Refugees and migrants are routinely exposed to horrendous abuses by Libyan officials, armed groups and criminal gangs.
“They suffer torture and other ill-treatment and arbitrary detention in appalling conditions, extortion, forced labour and killings – inflicted with total impunity.”
Mr de Bellis said: “European governments are colluding with the Libyan authorities to contain refugees and migrants in Libya, despite the horrific abuses they face at the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard and in detention centres in Libya.”
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said the UK is also to blame.
“The UK is as complicit as any other European government in the EU policy that now sustains a cycle of human rights abuse on a huge scale while humanitarian effort to save lives is deliberately undermined and obstructed.”