Dangerous crossing: Only seven EU patrol boats, two planes, one helicopter on watch for migrants in Mediterranean

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Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent, currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). He tweets at @pete_apps

After as many as 900 people died when a ship carrying migrants sank in the Mediterranean this weekend, the decision of European nations to dial back search and rescue operations in the region has been heavily criticized.

Had more dedicated rescue ships reached the disaster site sooner, critics say, fewer people might have died.

The truth, however, is that European nations face a difficult dilemma, one that challenged them well before this week’s disaster. Humanitarian groups and politicians are split on the best way to handle the migrant crisis.

The international life-saving presence, some argue, makes it even easier for human traffickers to persuade desperate migrants to risk crossing the Mediterranean. In November, a British Foreign Office minister said the UK believed that the international search rescue effort had become “an unintended ‘pull factor’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.”

On Monday European Union foreign ministers proposed doubling the size of the EU “Triton” mission that replaced a larger Italian naval search and rescue operation in November. The massive Italian naval operation dubbed “Mare Nostrum” was designed to save lives after the deaths of 360 migrants off the island of Lampedeusa in October 2013. It provided a literal lifeline to migrants, helping an estimated 150,000 reach shore safely.

But in the year it was operational, the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean soared — and with it, the number of deaths. The United Nations estimates 219,000 people crossed in 2014, well over three times the 60,000 migrants who crossed the previous year. An additional 3,500 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year, compared to 600 in 2013. If that death toll had occurred in a war, it would have been the tenth bloodiest of 2014.

Yet cutting back rescue efforts, UNHCR says, has sent the death toll skyrocketing further. Of the 36,000 who have tried to cross this year, 1,800 are believed to have died, according to the agency. Based on that figure, one in 18 migrants died this year, compared to one in 50 last year.

The EU “Triton” mission currently has only seven relatively small patrol vessels, two planes and one helicopter. Its $3.12 million monthly budget was only a third of the previous Italian operation. It can only patrol close to the Mediterranean coastline of Italy and Malta — unlike “Mare Nostrum,” which deployed Italian warships close to the Libyan coast.

The primary focus of the Triton mission — run by EU border organization Frontex — was never search and rescue but tracking and monitoring, its leader said this week.


The only ships available for rescue now are passing merchant vessels and a much smaller number of Italian and other warships on other missions. That means the time it takes to reach a vessel in distress can be significantly longer. The Italian Navy says it will still answer distress calls, but no longer has the funds to conduct patrols and actively look for craft in trouble.

In the case of the April 18 disaster, Amnesty International says it appears the fatalities were caused by the boat overturning as a passing commercial vessel attempted to carry out a rescue. The merchant ship was simply unable to deal with the number of casualties in the water. Even before last week’s disaster, the shipping industry was arguing its vessels — which often run with small crews — were ill-prepared to deal with mass rescue and that dedicated warships or rescue craft were needed.

Just as important as rescue operations, European governments say, is managing the situation in North Africa, clamping down on organized smuggling gangs and reducing the number of small craft available to make the crossing.

Stopping migrants in Libya before they took to the Mediterranean was a key part of the West’s deal with Libya dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Since his fall, however, the country has again become a hotbed for human trafficking.

Such is the instability in Libya that significant progress is unlikely — although a Libyan security official said on Tuesday the country had turned back several boats in the last three days, containing more than 600 migrants.

Like those from South and Central America who flee to the United States, migrants heading to Europe are largely motivated by the stark difference between living standards in the European Union and the countries they are leaving behind. As border controls in Turkey and, to a lesser extent Greece, have tightened, the Mediterranean has emerged as the key route out for those who wish to leave Africa and the Middle East.

In the Caribbean, the main maritime route to the United States, U.S. Coast Guard patrols primarily aimed at drug smuggling have long rescued Cuban and other potential migrants. Those intercepted at sea, however, are returned to their point of origin.

Some kind of similar approach might offer a way forward in Europe. Some European officials favor creating specific camps in the Middle East and Africa where potential migrants can register for asylum without having to make the crossing. As it stands now, most who make it across the Italy are able to “disappear” into Europe, often heading to other countries.

In the short term, however, European states face some difficult choices — and no obvious answer.

The article was first published on Reuters on 23 April 2014.

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