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Italy Is About to Shut Down the Sea Rescue Operation That Saved More Than 90,000 Migrants This Year

More than 3,000 migrants died trying to reach Europe by sea this year. And an Italian operation that saved more than 91,000 is now about to shut down.
Photo AP/Luca Bruno

A year ago on Friday, when a boat carrying hundreds of mostly Eritrean migrants capsized just feet away from the Italian coast, killing at least 366 people, Italian authorities who came to the rescue of the few survivors swore "never again."

But last year's tragedy, which a group is now pushing to memorialize by making October 3 an international day of remembrance, was hardly the first such incident, and it was not the last one. Just three weeks ago, up to 500 migrants, including 100 children, died trying to reach Italy — reportedly after their smugglers deliberately sunk the boat, following a confrontation onboard.


Since January, more than 3,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, many near the coast of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island just 185 miles north of Tripoli, and this, despite a rescue operation Italy set up following last October's tragedy.

In less than a year, the rescue operation "Mare Nostrum" — Latin for "our sea" — has brought more than 91,000 people safely to shore.

"A year ago, on October 3, all those people died at 200 meters from Lampedusa, they had basically arrived," Gabriele Del Grande, a migration activist and author of the blog "Fortress Europe," told VICE News. "That shipwreck caused a public opinion scandal. Not because it was so big — it wasn't the first or the biggest one — but because for the first time people saw the bodies."

"Three weeks ago when 500 people died, it happened on the high seas, so we didn't see the bodies and nobody felt indignant," he added. "October 3 was when we first saw rows of corpses on the dock. Mare Nostrum was the direct result of that indignation."

More than 2,000 migrants rescued off Italy in the last two days. Read more here.

But the initiative is massively expensive — more than $11 million a month — and politically controversial, with migration opponents claiming it encourages smugglers, while Italian authorities complain they were abandoned by the rest of Europe and left to deal with the problem alone.

Italy is set to shut down the operation in November. Another border control initiative by the European Union, with significantly reduced capacity, is supposed to partially replace it — but human rights and migration advocates are saying the end of Mare Nostrum will only cause more deaths.


"We are proud of the lives we saved," Italy's interior minister Angelino Alfano said at a press conference in August. "But Mare Nostrum won't live another year, because however commendable, it was meant as a short-term operation. Responsibility for the Mediterranean frontier rests with Europe. These migrants don't want to come to Italy, they want to come to Europe."

Shutting down Mare Nostrum at a time when sea arrivals in Italy are at their highest ever — 120,000 this year alone — is dangerous, critics say.

"The risk is that more people will die of course," Carlotta Sami, a representative for the UN refugee agency in southern Europe, told the Guardian.

North African migrants are dying in droves on the Mediterranean. Read more here.

"In response to this tragedy, one year ago, the European Commission and EU member states promised to do more to prevent deaths at sea," Judith Sunderland, a researcher with Human Rights Watch' European division, wrote in an open letter on Thursday. "A task force was set up, meetings were held. But it was Italy, on its own, that launched a massive naval search and rescue operation."

"The most important way Europe should honor all those who have died trying to reach its borders is with concrete action," she added. "Until that happens, Italy should continue Mare Nostrum."

Our Sea
Refugees fleeing wars and migrants looking for a better life in Europe have been taking their hopes and desperation to the waters of the Mediterranean for decades, with most over the last 10 years making their departure point in Libya, where controls are loose and human smugglers best organized.


"Libya is easier because it's basically in a civil war, smugglers do what they want and police can't stop them," Del Grande said. "And you can't really coordinate with a non-existing government."

Previous Italian administrations adopted a policy of sea patrol and "repulsion" of migrant boats — forcing them to turn back. For a while that reduced the flux of migrants, but the practice was condemned as violating both maritime and asylum law, as collective rejections got in the way of individuals' potential cases for asylum.

And inevitably, people trying to make it to Europe found ways to get there, taking increasingly dangerous routes to do it.

"There will always be reasons to leave, always be smugglers, patrols are not the solution," Del Grande said, and he added that so long as there are boats arriving, someone will hopefully come to their rescue. "It's like the ER. It doesn't matter how much it costs, you just do it because it needs to be done."

Depending on the year, and the most patrolled routes, boats packed with migrants aimed for Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Malta, but in recent years Italy, and Lampedusa in particular, have become the primary destination — accounting for 70 percent of all sea arrivals to Europe in 2013.

Hundreds of African migrants are still jumping fences into Europe. Read more here.

While most migrants used to come to Europe from sub-Saharan African countries, now many are refugees of wars in North Africa and the Middle East. Surges in arrivals were directly proportional to the political unrest that gripped the region over the last few years.


In 2011, during Libya's civil war, 1 million people — Libyans and foreign workers — fled the country, with 25,000 making it to Italy on boats. This year, as the number of Syrian refugees has reached a record 9 million, more than 30,000 have followed that route — including many Palestinian refugees in Syria, fleeing the besieged camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus.

But while coping with the arrivals to the best of its abilities, Italy has also been engaged on heated debates on the question — with Mare Nostrum coming under attack by the country's anti-immigration right, and with supporters of the initiative trying to step up their pressure on other European countries to do their part.

"On the one hand the government claims this is an honorable mission, they are saying this is good because we are saving lives," Del Grande said. "But the Lega Nord, Italy's xenophobic party, are saying, 'We opened the highway. We're spending a ton of money and they are coming because they know we are going to rescue them.' That's what the polemic boils down to. They want to shut down the mission because they say it brings more migrants."

"On the other hand, there is a debate between the government and the EU, with Italy saying, 'This is a European frontier, not an Italian one only, and Europe should pay for it," he added.

As Mare Nostrum shuts down next month it will be partially replaced by operations run by Frontex, a Poland-based European coordination agency that will channel EU funds into sea patrols and run interventions by different countries' militaries.


Few details have been revealed about the new operation, dubbed Frontex Plus, but the agency behind it is not equipped to carry out the kind of humanitarian assistance Mare Nostrum has provided. Its primary goal is "border enforcement, not saving lives," Sunderland wrote.

"Frontex is simply a coordination agency, they don't have ships and helicopters," Del Grande said. "They are an office in Warsaw and they coordinate efforts."

Frontex Plus won't enter international waters — which Mare Nostrum did — and it will receive significantly less funding.

"Frontex Plus is not a replacement for Mare Nostrum. What exactly will happen to Mare Nostrum is an Italian issue, it is not for us to decide," Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU's home affairs commissioner, said earlier this month. "Frontex does not have the capacity to do Mare Nostrum. We don't have the same amount of people. We don't have the mandate. We don't have the money. We don't have the resources."

And she, like some in Italy, expressed concern that the Italian rescue mission encouraged immigration.

"The tragic backslide of this is that it has also increased trafficking intensity on the other side of the Mediterranean," she said, "Which means that people have been put in even more unsafe vessels and even smaller boats because of the likelihood of them being saved."

The unaccompanied minors crisis is not really about border enforcement. Read more here.


But shrinking down the rescue is not a solution either, critics worry.

"Mare Nostrum showed it was possible to rescue tens of thousands of people, especially vulnerable people like pregnant women and children," Michele Prosperi, of Save The Children Italy, told the Guardian. "Whatever shape or form the new system takes, it must guarantee the same capacity."

During the last year, in an attempt to put pressure on other European countries to do more, Italian authorities have stopped fingerprinting all the migrants that arrive on their shores — in violation of the Dublin Regulation, which establishes that non-Europeans be registered at their first port of arrival.

A migrant arriving in Italy is technically only entitled to seek asylum there, though many, if not most, hope to continue their journeys north.

This year, Italy only fingerprinted those that intended to stay in the country — and up to 50,000 of those that arrived were never registered, Del Grande said.

Other European countries downplay Italy's migrant crisis as a "false emergency," citing their own numbers of asylum claims. Even without a Mediterranean border, Germany gets up to 100,000 claims a year, Del Grande said, and most of the Syrians that arrived in Italy eventually moved north — with 50,000 Syrians claiming asylum in Sweden last year.

"The truth is, this Europe is selfish, each government looks after its interest," Del Grande said. "All it would really take is a serious reform on asylum law, and a unified European approach. Instead, everyone looks at their own numbers: 'I have 100,000, you only have 20,000, you need to take more.' That's the level we're at."


These guys faked a wedding to smuggle Syrian refugees and filmed it. Read more here.

A unified European approach has been long on the table — with no concrete plans in sight.

But arrivals by sea, the most dangerous and often tragic, only account for a tiny fraction of immigration to the union, and Italy itself, which is home to nearly 5 million foreigners.

Many migrants come to Italy from eastern Europe and the Balkans, also thanks to the EU's inclusion of some eastern European countries, and its relaxation of visa policies.

"Visa liberalization was a brave policy, and it's working," Del Grande said, citing the example of Albania. Through the 1990s, the crammed, capsized boats we now see coming from Libya came from Albania, and thousands died crossing the Adriatic Sea.

Then, the EU opened up its borders, and the boats from Albania stopped. "And we didn't see an invasion of Albanians," Del Grande said.

Instead, he noted, the countries from which most migrants leave are those where it's hardest to obtain a Schengen visa — the sought-after European passe-partout. A study by the London School of Economics showed that the countries with high rates of Schengen visa refusal were often the countries of origin of most migrants arriving in Italy by boat.

"Where it's hardest to get a visa, people eventually will choose to travel by boat," Del Grande said. "But instead than addressing the cause and simplifying the visa process, we respond with military boats. We've been doing that for 20 years and for 20 years we have been counting the dead."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi

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