Italy’s rescue operation Mare Nostrum shuts down with no real replacement. EU’s Triton instead might put lives at risk

Cecilia Malmström, Member designate of the EC in charge of Trade, was auditioned by the Committee on International Trade (INTA) of the EP. (EC Audiovisual Services, 29/09/2014)

Cecilia Malmström, Member designate of the EC in charge of Trade, was auditioned by the Committee on International Trade (INTA) of the EP. (EC Audiovisual Services, 29/09/2014)

The European Union’s border control agency Frontex officially launched a mission in the Mediterranean Sea to face the mass attempt of migrants from Africa and the Middle East to reach Europe by boat. And this was not the only official news about this emergency last week.

After rumours and denials Italy confirmed last Friday that its search and rescue operation “Mare Nostrum” ends with the EU’s maritime operation Triton taking over. “From tomorrow a new operation called ‘Triton’ begins. Mare Nostrum ends. Italy has done its duty”. With these words Angelino Alfano, Italy’s deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, welcomed a new phase of cooperation between the European countries to face an immense humanitarian crisis. Or something that should look like that, only if observed from a good distance.

What remains perfectly visible, even from a huge distance, is the consistent differences between the two missions, which anyway are thought – with some dismay- to be de facto interchangeable, at least by someone. Italy’s Mare Nostrum (from Latin “Our Sea”), which began after 360+ people drowned when their boat sank just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa one year ago, sent patrols directly close to the Libyan coast and used to cover 70,000 km2 of the Mediterranean.

Triton though is about to focus on border control, only carrying out search-and-rescue operations if necessary, with a range of no more than 30 miles from coast. Mare Nostrum could count on five naval vessels, two helicopters, five aircraft, two submarines and 900 military personnel. Triton’s assets include seven vessels, one helicopter, four fixed-wing aircraft and 65 officers.

Talking about numbers, Mare Nostrum has been costing Italy 9 million euros a month, Triton has an estimated cost of 2.9 million euros a month for the EU. Triton will basically emphasize border control and security, and this will be its main activity. This was made clear by EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in an official statement earlier last month: “It is clear that the Triton operation cannot and will not replace Mare Nostrum. The future of Mare Nostrum remains in any case an Italian decision”. The Commission also says Italy must continue fulfilling its international obligations to rescue people in danger at sea, meaning “continued substantial efforts using national means”, and Italy is anyway expected to contribute to the mission with an extra 3.5 million euro per month.

Italy received many critics for its decision to quit Mare Nostrum. “Italy’s proposal to end its Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea would put the lives of thousands of migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe at risk”, Amnesty International warned in October. A warning that produced no effect though.

“Frontex’s Triton operation does not begin to meet the needs of thousands of migrants and refugees, including those forced to flee war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa. The suggestion that it could replace Mare Nostrum could have catastrophic and deadly consequences in the Mediterranean,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director. Also Catholic charity Caritas, Save the Children and the UNHCR have all insisted that, with a lack of commitment in Europe to finding ways to help asylum seekers to escape their homelands, Italy cannot simply stop saving boat migrants.

The risks of the shutdown of Mare Nostrum are pretty clear to everyone: the European Union is now officially without a search and rescue operation, and many lives will be again put at risk. It is also clear why Italy is receiving so many critics from the humanitarian organisations, but what is not clear to me at least is why Europe is not receiving most of the critics. Are too many years of silence and lack of commitment to find common, effective solutions, no sufficient reason?

Mare Nostrum has always been treated as “Mare Vostrum” by the EU, like if the Mediterranean represented just Italy’s borders, and not the entire Union’s ones. It is evident that Italy is trying to get rid of the costs of the mission in a moment of recession, but this was extensively foreseeable, and I’m sure better solutions could have been found after Rome has long urged the EU to do more to help cope with the migration problem.

“Italy’s Mare Nostrum has saved thousands of lives*, while the other member states idly watch on”, said Nicolas J. Beger, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office. “They must now share that responsibility with them, and not hide behind an operation that is not fit for the very real search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean Sea”, he added. And this can be a good summary of the picture, in my personal opinion.

During its one-year lifetime, Mare Nostrum has been largely criticized by many, by governments too in some cases, which argued that such patrols encouraged migrants to set out to the sea. The UK for example has repeatedly said that Britain will not be supporting any future search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Lady Anelay, British Foreign Office minister, declared that such missions “create an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. ]

This statement should be considered carefully, but I also think that when Mr. Beger says that the operation Triton can be “a clear testimony to EU member states’ continuing preoccupation with protecting borders over people”, there’s serious considerations to be made.

I believe that Lady Anelay’s further proposal to “focus our attention on countries of origin and transit” is without doubt a concrete one. However, expecting that a migrant would not set to the open sea because he is informed that no rescue mission is provided be the EU might be ridiculous.

Simply because what migrants leave behind is probably way worse than the Mediterranean Sea in a cold winter night.

*Italy has saved more than 100,000 lives (with many sources saying more than 150,000) in 421 operations in the 12 months since Mare Nostrum began.

the sting Milestone

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  1. […] of the reasons for abandoning Mare Nostrum could be seen as the lack of funds. Triton is cheaper but it may less […]

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