BRUSSELS (AP) — The humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders is launching a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean next month in dismay at European efforts to manage the migrant influx.
It is the first time the group has undertaken such an operation. The aid organization will station doctors on a ship between Malta and the coast of Libya as the number of migrants attempting the crossing from the conflict-hit North African country increases.
"We are acutely aware that we are only one boat. It's a tragedy that Europe has turned its back on this problem," Hernan del Valle, head of humanitarian affairs at Doctors Without Borders, said Monday.
More than 280,000 people entered the European Union illegally last year. The International Organization for Migration says that 3,279 people died in the Mediterranean.
Many perished in rickety boats launched from Libya, and Europe's coast guards have been overwhelmed.
The Italian navy withdrew its rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, from the Mediterranean late last year.
A smaller EU operation, dubbed Triton, was launched but it does not have a mandate for search and rescue work.
"The magnitude of the problem is so huge that you cannot rely on ships in the area," said Aurelie Ponthieu, humanitarian adviser at Doctors Without Borders. "You need to be actively searching. You need to have patrols in the high risk zones."
The search and rescue work will be conducted for six months aboard a vessel operated by the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station group.
The 40-meter (43-yard) MY Phoenix is equipped with inflatable rescue boats and surveillance drones.
The maritime rescue coordination center in Rome will decide the emergencies to which it should deploy.
"It's easy to sit on the shore and point at each other," said del Valle. "But we can't be letting people drown."