Mare Nostrum: a complicated game?

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SAR boats at the harbour of Lampedusa

There are many angles from which to approach writing on Mare Nostrum (Latin for ‘Our Sea’), the large-scale search and rescue (SAR) operation by the Italian Navy in cooperation with a range of other national agencies. The focus could be on the role and responsibilities of Italy and other countries of the European Union respectively, on the institutional quarrels between navy and coast guard, or on the pull-factor debate, among many others. What’s common to all these approaches is their political nature: It becomes clear that Mare Nostrum is inherently political – as political as the moment of its inception.

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Migrant boats at Porto Empedocle, Sicily

The operation was initiated by the Italian government following the shipwreck off Lampedusa a year ago. Several of our interlocutors describe this tragedy as “a key moment in Italian migration history”. Pope Francis, who had chosen Lampedusa for his first official visit outside Rome only two months previously on 8 July 2013, called the shipwreck of 3 October una vergogna, shameful, which created substantial pressure for the Italian government: “Everybody accused Italy of leaving people to die on our doorstep”.  The Italian government reacted quickly: It took only 15 days for the operation to initiate on 18 October 2013.

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Comandante Maltese, Coast Guard Catania

Despite its military design, the operation was therefore launched with a humanitarian purpose, as the Central Directorate of Immigration and Border Police of the Ministry of the Interior explains. “Mare Nostrum really saves lives”, is then also the sentence that we hear the most during our various meetings. And indeed, almost one year after its launch, according to Angelino Alfano, Minister of the Interior, the operation has taken 91,000 migrants safely to Italian ports. However, even in this period, 3,000 migrants have died in their attempt to reach Europe, with a substantial increase in the number of those perishing during third quarter of the year.

Mare Nostrum, as an ad hoc operation, provides the financial means – the operation costs Italy 9 million Euros per month – and assets to assist the Coast Guard with its search and rescue obligations at a time of exceptionally high numbers of arrivals. The Italian Coast Guard carries out their search and rescue duties in accordance with the 1979 Hamburg International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR). Their interpretation of the terms of this Convention is that every unseaworthy vessel on the high seas is potentially in distress and therefore needs to be rescued. The Libyan SAR centre is virtually non-existent, the Maltese one is deficient, and therefore, in case of an emergency even in Libyan waters, “the nearest, or most effective” SAR centre in Italy has a legal obligation to intervene. These humanitarian obligations apply irrespective of Mare Nostrum.  

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Coast Guard Catania

Mare Nostrum supplies further naval assets to cover the Mediterranean sea close to Libyan territorial waters. The navy-led operation is integrated into the existing SAR framework to the effect that there are more rescue vessels closer to Libya. The vast majority of migrant boats picked up relatively close to the Libyan coast; only few escape the attention of the large-scale search mission and reach Italian shores without being detected. Since the European Court of Human Rights decision in Hirsi Jaama v Italy in 2012, push-backs to Libya are ruled out, such that passengers are taken to Italy: “Once the migrants are on the boats, it is difficult to prevent them from reaching Europe”, a representative of the Ministry of the Interior notes.

And yet, in the days running up to its anniversary, the operation’s future is uncertain. For all the praise it has received, Mare Nostrum has also been criticised, including by EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, mainly on the basis that it has played into the hands of traffickers.

Even though it is clear that the boats used have always been in terrible conditions, it appears to be largely common ground that with Mare Nostrum, business has become easier for smugglers. They now tend to use even smaller boats in even worse conditions and with an even greater number of passengers, and save costs on life vests, water, food and fuel, expecting that the boat will only have to make 20-30 miles before being saved by the Italian forces.

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The team with Comandante Cannarile, Coast Guard Lampedusa

Cannarile, Commanding Officer for Search and Rescue for the Coast Guard in Lampedusa, is critical of the operation. He explains that it has not only led to more dangerous trips for migrants but also to longer and more dangerous SAR operations for the Coast Guard, mainly benefitting the traffickers’ business: Migrants are their customers who demand certainty of arriving in Italy. “It’s a complicated game”, he says. Then he shows us the harbour of Zuwara, just west of Tripoli, full of the fishing boats that are typically used for the sea crossings, saying “this is why this problem won’t stop”.

Whether the operation has also led to a greater number of migrants embarking on the journey, however, is subject to debate and difficult to verify. It is clear that there has been an enormous increase in numbers of arrivals, but to what extent the factual rise in numbers has to be attributed to the pull-factor Mare Nostrum and to what extent it is a result of push-factors such as the unstable situation in Libya, the war in Syria and other crises appears to be a question of political belief.

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Comandante Di Marco at the ITCG operational centre in Porto Empedocle, Sicily

Irrespective of these debates, given the context of its inception and the continuously high numbers of sea crossings, it appears to be politically difficult to stop the operation: “Now, Mare Nostrum is a piece of the parcel”, we are told at the Ministry of the Interior. In view of the high cost of the operation, however, and referring to the fact that migrants are crossing a European border in order to reach countries other than Italy, the country has been claiming greater support from the EU. The Commission has agreed to increase EU assistance to Italy by stepping up Frontex operational responses in order to complement Italian efforts. With the EU having clarified that the new Frontex operation codenamed Triton – expected to start on 1 November 2014 – will not replace Mare Nostrum, the exact terms of the agreement between Frontex and Italy are unclear, though it is to be expected that unlike Mare Nostrum it will not be a search and rescue operation.

SAR is not part of the Frontex mandate, which can rather be summarised as border management and surveillance. Two ongoing joint operations in Italy are Aeneas and Hermes, in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean respectively, aimed at “Implementing activities to control irregular migration flows and other cross-border crime”. Coast Guard Cannarile puts it this way: “Frontex can pay for the assets, but they cannot operate. They can ask us what we need, but they cannot tell us what we have to do.”

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SAR boat at Porto Empedocle

The European Commission clarified in a Memo that “Frontex is neither a search and rescue body nor does it take up the functions of a Rescue Coordination Centre”, such that Triton “does not replace or substitute Italian obligations … in particular when it comes to search and rescue at sea”. Accordingly, “Italy will have to continue making substantial efforts using national means, fully coordinated with the Frontex operation, to manage the situation.”

Under these circumstances, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent the Italian government will maintain the costly Mare Nostrum operation. On the anniversary of the tragic shipwreck of 3 October, Italy’s premier Matteo Renzi claimed that Mare Nostrum will not be abandoned until the European Union provides a similar or larger search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Just five days later, however, this was contradicted by Minister of the Interior Alfano at the Council of the European Union, where he stated that Italy is getting ready to phase out Mare Nostrum once Triton gets started: “Triton will take the place of Mare Nostrum”.