A leading humanitarian organisation has called on European governments to prioritise the rescue of migrants attempting to travel from Libya to Europe.

Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders said the current policy of supporting the Libyan Coast Guard to return migrants to Libya is putting them at risk.

In a statement to RTÉ, MSF said: "The focus has not been on assisting and rescuing people in peril for quite some time, but instead has been one of political and material support to the Libyan Coast Guard that has led to the forced return of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to Libya - a country currently in conflict and which is unsafe for refugees and migrants."

MSF called for the evacuation of all migrants in detention camps in Libya to safe locations.

MSF's comments were sought following a debate in the European Parliament on migration, on which Irish MEPs were divided.

The debate was on a resolution from the parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, which read for "EU Member States to enhance proactive search and rescue operations by providing sufficient vessels and equipment specifically dedicated to search and rescue operations and personnel, along the routes where they can make an effective contribution to the preservation of lives".

Ireland’s four Fine Gael MEPs, who sit with the centre-right European People’s Party group, voted against the motion. Green MEPs and MEPs in the left-wing GUE/NGL group -including Sinn Féin and Independent MEP Luke Ming Flanagan - voted in favour of the motion. The resolution was defeated by two votes.

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher, who sits with the ALDE/Renew group, and Independent MEP Clare Daly, who sits with the GUE/NGL group, did not vote in the debate.


Read from 2015: Government did not support migrant rescue missions in Mediterranean


Sinn Féin's Foreign Affairs spokesperson described the EPP’s vote as "an outrage" and called on the Government to clarify its position on search and rescue in the Mediterranean.

"I am calling on the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, to immediately clarify if there has been a change in Irish Government policy regarding search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, and if he directed these MEPs from his party to vote against this resolution to improve search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean," Seán Crowe said in a statement.

Fine Gael MEPs have defended their stance. Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness, said the four Fine Gael MEPs who all voted no had concerns about a measure contained in the resolution relating to the sharing of intelligence.

She said the provision would have required Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, "to share information with all ships in the region, including traffickers".

Ms McGuinness said that would not have been acceptable and said if the resolution had been passed, it would have "made the situation worse".

Vice-president of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, Claude Moraes, who sits on the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland he was saddened by the vote.

Mr Moraes accused the EPP, which is the biggest group in the parliament, of having "teamed up in essence with the far right" in voting against the resolution.

The MEP for London said using Frontex as the reason for voting against what he described as a wide-ranging solution was "not good enough".

An estimated 1,080 migrants have died on the central Mediterranean route so far this year, according to the Missing Migrants tracking project, which uses data from the International Organisation on Migration.

More than 82,000 migrants have arrived by this route in Europe so far this year, down from almost 100,000 last year.