Triton project shortcomings seen in Mediterranean death toll

EU border control can call on one-third of Italian Mare Nostrum’s maritime resources

A line of hearses as the bodies of migrants are unloaded from an Italian ship at Lampedusa harbour, Italy, yesterday. More than 330 migrants are feared dead following the most serious string of accidents in the Mediterranean since the start of the year. Photograph: EPA

A line of hearses as the bodies of migrants are unloaded from an Italian ship at Lampedusa harbour, Italy, yesterday. More than 330 migrants are feared dead following the most serious string of accidents in the Mediterranean since the start of the year. Photograph: EPA

 

The recent Mediterranean tragedy in which up to 400 African migrants may have died has prompted criticism of the EU’s Triton border control mission.

When Triton replaced the Italian Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue mission last November, experts argued that the move could have fatal consequences.

Former Italian integration minister Cécile Kyenge was one of many who pointed out that Triton would be much less effective, not only because it can call on only one-third of Mare Nostrum’s maritime resources, but because its range of action is limited to a 48km zone in Italy’s coastal waters, unlike the huge areas covered by Mare Nostrum. At the time, the Matteo Renzi-led Italian government had argued that Mare Nostrum, at a cost of about €9 million was simply too expensive.

Freezing waters

Likewise, there were no boats on hand to rescue up to 400 people who drowned when three boats full of migrants sank after setting off from Tripoli in Libya last Saturday.

Italian opposition forces, such as the Northern League, had campaigned against Mare Nostrum, claiming not only that it was too expensive but also that it “encouraged” economic migrants to make the hazardous trip across the Mediterranean, secure in the knowledge that if their boat got into trouble they would be picked by the Italian navy.

Statistics for this year appear to contradict this claim.

Even though Mare Nostrum was officially closed last year, the number of arrivals by boat increased from 2,171 in January 2014 to 3,528 last month. Worse still, by the middle of February last year, there had been 12 recorded deaths, while this year the death count is already more than 300. The speaker of the Italian lower house, former UNHCR spokeswoman Laura Boldrini, said: “Faced with this tragedy, you cannot fail to conclude that the Triton operation is a failure.”

Former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, who worked hard to introduce Mare Nostrum in the immediate aftermath of the Lampedusa boat people tragedy of October 2013, broke his political silence to send out a tweet yesterday seemingly critical of his successor, Mr Renzi, saying: “Bring back Mare Nostrum. Whether the European countries want it or not. Whether it costs votes or not.”

The Italian office of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) was especially critical yesterday, calling these latest deaths a “demonstration of the failure of EU border policy”, adding: “Not only have European states not taken the necessary measures to save lives in the Mediterranean, they have established a series of ‘legal’ obstacles for those fleeing intensifying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. ”

Italy JRS director Fr Camillo Ripamonti argued that it is simply unacceptable “that the Mediterranean continues to be a migrant graveyard”.

Survivors of these tragedies have reported that, even though a majority of the migrants did not want to set out from Libya in vessels clearly inadequate for the rough conditions, they had been forced to do so at gunpoint by the traffickers.

Most of the migrants claimed they had paid $800 (€708) for the passage to Italy.