Bigger than any financial scandal or bishops’ resignation was the story of hundreds of illegal migrants who drowned off the coast of Libya when their vessel capsized. Pope Francis used his Angelus address to draw attention to the tragedy and call on the international community to take “decisive and quick action” to prevent further tragedies. Church officials and agencies have echoed that call, but will the international community - specifically the European Union - take action?
The Promised Land
African migrants cross perilous borders and trek across the Sahara desert to reach Libya or Tunisia where they are placed on boats headed towards Italy, Malta, or even Greece. Increasingly Syrian migrants are undertaking similarly arduous voyages to get to Europe. Karolina Babicka, a migration expert for Caritas Europe told Salt + Light their journey often starts with the loss of the family home in Syria. They move to Lebanon, or Egypt and try to re-establish themselves there. When that fails they move on to Libya and, like their African counterparts they seek out people who are willing - for a price- to put them on a boat to Europe.
The Strait of Sicily, which separates Tunisia from the southern Italian region, is about 145 kilometers wide. The distance between the Libyan coast and Sicily’s southern coast is wider, about 205 kilometers. It looks like a short crossing to a land where peace and economic prosperity seems assured. In the first four months of 2015 and estimated 36,000 migrants made the crossing while aproximately 1,800 are believed to have perished.
The vessels used to smuggle people to Europe are often not seaworthy and easily take on water and get into distress. That is when the Italian Navy steps in. If the vessels do survive the crossing, a better life is far from guaranteed. Babicka says migrants who land in Greece are more than likely to end up on the streets because “the Greek asylum system is in crisis” and cannot provide migrants with the basic necessities.
Operation Mare Nostrum
In October 2013 the Italian Navy established what they called “Operation: Mare Nostrum” (appropriately, the Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea) to respond to the increasing numbers of boats and ships arriving or sinking off the southern Italian coast.
Operation Mare Nostrum involved the use of
- 1 amphibious vessel
- 1 -2 frigates
- 2 second line High Seas units with fully operational medical facilities on board
- 1 team from the San Marco Marine Brigade
- 1 Coastal Radar network
- 1 Atlantic patrol aircraft
- 1 Predator A+ (a drone, it escorts navy ships and films the operation)
- 1 MM P180 aircraft
- 2 unmanned camcopters
- 1 forward logistics site
At any given time there were five Italian ships or aircraft on duty. The Italian Navy says because of Operation Mare Nostrum 150,810 lives were saved and 330 people smugglers were brought to justice. The cost of running the program was an estimated nine million euros per month. Remember, around this time the Italian government was changing practically every month with each new government eventually falling over economic and financial management issues.
European Union steps in
By the fall of 2014, Italy was calling for help from the rest of European Union to step up and help. In November 2014, the EU’s border patrol department, Frontex, launched Operation Triton. It was conceived as a border patrol operation that would rely on funds from the EU and vessels and aircraft contributed by member states.
It has a budget of 2.9 million euros per month to work with. That is six million less than what it cost to run Mare Nostrum. Thanks to Finland, the Netherlands and Portugal, Operation Triton has:
- 7 boats
- 2 planes
- 1 helicopter
Naturally with a smaller budget and fleet, the scope of the operation would be reduced. Operation Triton actively patrols up to 48 kilometers off the coast of Italy.
The head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri told The Guardian newspaper this week the European Union’s mandate is to patrol borders, not search and rescue. Leggeri said he would not ask for more boats, or send them out closer to the Libyan coast because doing so would simply draw more migrants and encourage people smugglers. In his view, the presence of EU vessels off the coast of Libya would be seen as a guarantee of safe passage.
Babicka says this is an example of the lack of political will that seems prevalent among politicians and bureaucrats who could develop more effective immigration policies and humanitarian based operations, but do not.
Perhaps the international outcry or even the Pope’s appeal that moved the European Council to hold a special April 23 meeting focused on illegal migration.
In a statement after the meeting the European Council said it would triple the budget for Frontex’s Operation Triton and reinforce its assets. Members of the EC also agreed to try to stem the flow of migrants by addressing the root causes: the EC will support UN led efforts to establish a functional government in Libya and step up efforts to address the situation in Syria.
Organizations like Caritas and the United Nations are welcome the promise of more funding and resources, but say it is not enough. People use illegal immigration channels because, “there are no legal channels available,” said Babicka.
Photo: CNS/Loukas Mastis, EPA