LAMPEDUSA/ROME, MARCH 29 – As one boy, a 16 years old, survived from a shipwreck in the Mediterranean, which may have left up to 146 people dead or missing (140 migrants were in fact saved by another boat, IOM reported later in the week), the Italian Parliament gave final approval to a law outlining comprehensive standards of care for unaccompanied migrant children arriving in Italy, including a strict prohibition of turning them away at the border.
UNICEF and Save the Children praised the law’s passage Wednesday saying it was the first of its kind in Europe. The law covers all aspects of care for minors arriving in Italy alone, reducing the amount of time they can spend in preliminary welcome centers, setting a 10-day window to confirm their identities and guaranteeing access to health care. Save the Children says more than 25,800 unaccompanied minors arrived in Italy by sea last year, more than twice as many as 2015. At least 3,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived so far this year.
The same Wednesday morning in Lampedusa, a UNHCR team interviewed the only survivor of a boat which is believed to have sunk in the Mediterranean with 147 passengers on board, including five children and several pregnant women. The 16-year old survivor said their boat left two days ago from Sabratha, in Libya, and started taking on water after a few hours of navigation. He survived the shipwreck by hanging to a fuel tank, until he was rescued by a Spanish ship operating under Operation Sophia.
This latest tragedy comes as a stark reminder of the vital importance of robust search and rescue capacities. Saving lives at sea must remain the key priority for all and UNHCR commends the action of the Italian Coast Guard in coordination with Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
NGOs also play a crucial role in saving lives at sea, by providing additional and much needed rescue capacity. In 2016, 26% of all rescue operations in the central Mediterranean were performed by NGOs, more than twice than the previous year.
The recent increase of sea arrivals to Italy, with some 23,085 people in 2017 so far, and the lower quality of vessels used by traffickers, including flimsy inflatable rafts that often do not last throughout the journey, make these rescue operations more needed than ever before.
According to a 2016 report by the Italian Coast Guard, the absence of satellite-phones on vessels, the high number of night departures from Libya in bad sea conditions and the use of rubber boats, with increasing numbers of passengers on board, also contribute to higher probability of shipwreck and sinking. (@alebal, updated on March 31))