The European Commission has announced plans to extend its migrant monitoring and rescue mission in the Mediterranean — dubbed Operation Triton — until the end of the year. It also awarded an amount of 13.7 million euros ($15.5 million) in emergency funding from the Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF) to Italy to help authorities manage the ongoing influx of migrants.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday, the EU's migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said that Italy, a favored gateway for migrants trying to reach Europe, was "not alone," adding that, "Europe stands with Italy." In 2014 alone, a record 170,000 migrants and asylum seekers landed in Italy's ports.
Operation Triton, which is managed by European border control agency Frontex, was launched in November 2014 to replace Mare Nostrum, Italy's own mission to rescue migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Since its launch in 2013, Mare Nostrum has helped save 150,000 stricken migrants and led to the arrest of 351 human traffickers.
Earlier this week, Amnesty International's Italy campaigner Matteo De Bellis traveled to the island of Lampedusa to assess the situation and collect testimonies from migrants who had survived the perilous crossing. Speaking to VICE News today, De Bellis said that while Europe had correctly read the need for a continued operation, more resources would need to be mobilized.
"The continuation of Operation Triton is not per se a bad thing, but it's not what is needed right now," he said. "We need to have a multilateral operation at sea in the central Med, with the clear purpose of saving lives at sea and with the resources needed to do this. It's Europe's problem, so it needs a European solution, as commissioner Avramopoulos said."
The biggest issue is that Triton is not mandated or equipped to carry out missions on the scale of Mare Nostrum. While Mare Nostrum was primarily a rescue operation, Triton is mostly set up as a monitoring initiative. Triton's boats have to stay within a 35-mile radius of the Italian shoreline, and cannot cross over into international waters, where the majority of shipwrecks occur.
Further compromising the restricted scope of its mission, Triton has limited resources, with only three aircraft, nine ships, and 65 officers at a monthly operating budget between 1.5 and 3 million euros ($1.7 to $3 million). By comparison, Mare Nostrum deployed 900 officers, 32 ships, as well as several planes and helicopters, at a monthly budget of 9 million euros ($10 million). Its reach went as far as Libya — a major exit point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
As recently as February 8, close to 300 migrants are thought to have drowned after three rubber dinghies sank off the coast of Lampedusa. The tragedy has highlighted the inadequacy of monitoring missions without an operational rescue capacity. As the dinghies' warning signals were intercepted by the Italian coast guard, the Triton ships were stuck refueling in Malta and Sicily.
Former prime minister Enrico Letta immediately took to Twitter to demand that Mare Nostrum be reinstated, whatever the cost.
Human rights NGOs have also criticized Europe for its poor record on helping migrants in the Mediterranean.
"With Mare Nostrum, we could have given these people shelter and food," said Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. His feelings were echoed by Amnesty International, who wrote in a statement that, "A great many refugees and migrants will continue to die if the gap that has been left by Italian rescue operation Mare Nostrum is not filled."
The European Commission is due to discuss migration policy on March 4. Meanwhile, Italy has a new migration issue to contend with: in the last days, Italian media has reported that the Islamic Sate has threatened to send hundreds of thousands of migrants to the Italian shores, using them as a "psychological weapon" to dissuade Italy from intervening in Libya. For now, IS has yet to confirm the threat, and terror experts caution that it may be little more than an provocation. However, some in Italy have expressed concern that terrorists could be hiding among migrants.
For Matteo De Bellis, these statements are just speculations. "We have no evidence whatsoever that jihadists are taking advantage of this and even the European commission actually said they have no evidence to support this view," he stated, adding that "even in the extreme case — which is pure speculation for the moment — that this was happening, there is no reason whatsoever not to save lives at sea."
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho