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Beyond the Sea of Crocodile Tears lies the EU’s Biggest Crime


Last summer, we told the story of Operation Mare Nostrum and how the EU refused to acknowledge the problem. Things have changed since then, but not, unfortunately, for the better. 

On 1 November, Operation Mare Nostrum – Italy’s search and rescue operation to fight human trafficking across the Mediterranean sea, set up after a particularly disastrous incident that cost the lives of over 360 migrants in October 2013 – ended. The operation, according to the Italian minister for internal affairs Angelino Alfano, would be replaced by Frontex’s Triton – a joint operation that has seen the participation of 15 EU members with three open sea patrol vessels, four coastal patrol vessels, two coastal patrol boats, two aircraft, and one helicopter.

In a time of economic strife, it’s hardly a surprise that the end of the costly Operation Mare Nostrum –  €9.5m each month – was so enthusiastically saluted by Alfano. Triton’s budget is €2.9m, and its cost is to be shared among several European countries. But how does Triton work? Is it enough to save as many lives as possible? Or is it a step backwards?

Sadly, over two months later, it can be said that from a humanitarian standpoint the end of Operation Mare Nostrum and the introduction of Triton represent several steps backwards. As things stand, Triton is nowhere near effective enough to take on the task Operation Mare Nostrum carried out until October. It was never even meant to, and Italy’s government has chosen to terminate Operation Mare Nostrum despite knowing this fully.

A first sign things may not be looking so bright for the migrants who face death every day in the Mediterranean sea, came from Frontex Executive Director Gil Arias Fernandez – who in September, two months before Triton even started, made clear that Frontex was not meant to take over the same role as Mare Nostrum, and that it would be “two different missions”.

The main issue concerns Triton’s operational range. Whereas Operation Mare Nostrum could get almost to the coast of North Africa if needed, effectively patrolling a vast area, Triton is simply meant to only cover Italy’s territorial waters in addition to parts of the search and rescue zones of Italy and Malta. Begging the question — what if help was needed further away?

When it was announced that Operation Mare Nostrum would end as Triton took over, John Dalhuisen Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director, urged Italy’s government to keep it running alongside Triton.

“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,” he said. “The suggestion that it could replace Mare Nostrum could have catastrophic and deadly consequences in the Mediterranean.”

“Triton is a border operation and does not have a search and rescue mandate. It will only operate close to Italian waters and not beyond, where it is most needed. Even Frontex have said that Triton does not have the resources to carry out the work of Mare Nostrum.”

The plea went unheard, and on October 31 Operation Mare Nostrum was terminated, leaving only Triton in its place.

“Operation Triton, however, cannot be expected to handle the migrant challenge alone,” reads a press release on Frontex’s website, dated December 24. “It has two aircraft and a helicopter at its disposal, two open sea patrol vessels, and four coastal ones: a fleet appropriate to its mandate, which is to control the EU’s borders, not to police 2.5million square kilometres of the Mediterranean.”

Former Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge, who expressed her concern over Triton’s inadequacy to face the emergency in the Mediterranean sea, said: “Time passes as human lives are swallowed by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. We must hurry, we need a step forward and a real, global European strategy. We need more places to examine asylum requests within the European borders, and we need to strengthen out means of rescue at sea and fight against human traffickers.”

Saving money seems to have taken priority over saving human lives, and for this Italy was rightly criticized.  On the other hand, one has to wonder how come Europe chose to ignore the possibility of dividing up the costs of Operation Mare Nostrum among the members of the EU and instead decided to run a much cheaper operation that, by Frontex’s own admission, couldn’t possibly hope to carry out the same work as Mare Nostrum.  Nor has anyone considered creating humanitarian corridors to safely take at least the migrants who can apply for asylum to Europe, so that they don’t have to pay human traffickers to risk their lives at sea.

Whether or not they expected Italy to keep Operation Mare Nostrum running after the introduction of Triton, it’s clear member states of the EU aren’t willing to pay for a proper search and rescue operation to contrast human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea – nor are they willing to come together for a solution that could solve the very basis of this traffic.

Perhaps it will take a few thousands more victims for the EU to do so. Until then, when tragedy strikes and yet another cargo of human lives is lost as Triton’s ships stay close to the Italian coasts, EU members should at least have the decency not to cry the usual sea of crocodile tears.

Words by Alessandra Pacelli 

Image Credit: somewhereelsewhere

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