Italian navy to continue refugee rescue mission

Confusion mounts as decision taken to replace Mare Nostrum scheme from November

Italian marines prepare to check and document African migrants after transporting them from a commercial ship to a navy vessel in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Libya early in October   2014. Photograph: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

Italian marines prepare to check and document African migrants after transporting them from a commercial ship to a navy vessel in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and Libya early in October 2014. Photograph: Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

 

The Italian navy will continue a search and rescue mission which has saved the lives of an estimated 150,000 refugees because no order has been received from the Italian government to stop.

Confusion now surrounds the future of the Mare Nostrum programme as a decision has already been taken to replace it with a more limited scheme from November 1st.

But Adm Filippo Maria Foffi, the navy’s commander-in-chief, told a conference in Brussels that the Italian navy had no intention of standing down. And he hinted at a division within the Italian government on the issue.

“We didn’t receive any signed order saying we were going to finish operations on November 1st,” said Adm Foffi. “Mare Nostrum is working exactly as we worked in the last year . . . something could change but there is no official evidence that at the end of October we will finish.”

Pressed on a statement by right-wing interior minister Angelino Alfano about the imminent demise of Mare Nostrum, Adm Foffi said that he received the prime minister’s orders through the defence minister and reacting to Mr Alfano’s statement was “not the way that military men conduct their activities”.

Mare Nostrum’s demise had seemed certain after the launch of a more limited “Triton” scheme was announced for November 1st. This will be confined to a 30-mile zone around Italy’s coastal waters, possess a third of Mare Nostrum’s maritime capacities and be co-ordinated through the EU-funded Frontex agency.

However, campaigners noted that any decision to terminate Mare Nostrum would have to be taken by a council of Italian ministers, and the issue has not yet been formally put on any meeting agenda.

Christopher Hein, director of the Italian Council for Refugees, suggested the Italian prime minister and defence minister were at odds with their interior minister over the programme’s continuation.

“We have recent pronunciations from the prime minister and the defence minister that go in a different direction from Alfano, who is also head of a small rightwing party that worked with Berlusconi until the day before yesterday and so has to keep his people quiet,” he said.

A “phasing out” of the current programme could take many years, he added.

The Mare Nostrum project is an Italian military mission that received about €30 million from the European commission after the Lampedusa tragedy. No further funding applications have so far been received from Rome.

The UK Foreign Office stirred ire in Brussels yesterday when it

announced that it would not participate in any future operations because of their “pulling factor” in encouraging economic migrants to set sail for Europe.

An estimated 2,500 people are known to have died this year while making the perilous trip across the Mediterranean Sea.

Mr Foffi said refugees’ journeys typically started three months before arrival at the shores of north Africa, and involved hardships that meant half of the travellers die. “If someone is speaking about a ‘pulling factor’, he doesn’t know what he is speaking about,” he added.

Agencies say asylum applications in Europe are up 30 per cent this year to a record high because of conflicts in places such as Syria, Libya and Eritrea. But this only represents 8 per cent of the world’s 51 million refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And within Europe most eventually disembark in Germany, Sweden and Hungary.

Michael Diedring, secretary general of the European Council for Refugees, said the British foreign office argument was “morally shocking” as more than half of those saved under the Mare Nostrum programme had been fleeing war and persecution in Libya and Eritrea.

“It is as if you walk by a river and see a child being pulled away by the current and think: ‘I’ll let the child drown because then the other kids will know that they shouldn’t fall into the river. Hopefully, most of us would jump in or pick up a branch to save the child. It’s basic humanity.”

Tineke Strik, the rapporteur for the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, said the UK announcement would be damaging for the UK’s reputation in Europe “as far as it can become any worse”.

“I think it is incredible, actually. It shows that they are turning their backs on the horrible problems in the Mediterranean Sea. It is not just something to regret but to be very angry about,” she said. Guardian