Sea Change Italy's Refugee Rescue Runs Aground

Mare Nostrum, Italy's sea and air rescue program, has saved the lives of thousands seeking to enter Europe surreptitiously by sea. Now an E.U. border agency, Frontex, will take over. But the new rescuers lack money and say they cannot save those adrift in international waters.
Dangerously overloaded boats keep coming to Europe.

For some, it is an initiative worthy of a Nobel Prize, for others it’s just an emergency aid measure to be discontinued as soon as possible. Either way, Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation ended last Friday, and Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano confirmed that Triton, the E.U.'s maritime patrol, would take over the next day.   

Yet another example of Europe’s failure. Italy has saved the lives of more than 150,000 people by literally fishing them out of the Mediterranean Sea since Mare Nostrum (Latin for “Our Sea”)  began in October 2013. The operation was set up after hundreds of refugees died off the coast of Sicily in boat disasters.

Unlike previous programs, Italian ships and aircraft traveled beyond the nation’s territorial waters to save refugees in distress in the dangerous sea crossings to Europe from places such as north Africa. The program's objectives were twofold: To guarantee the safety of people at sea and bring to justice those profiting from the illegal trade in human beings.

Mare Nostrum had been working with the E.U. border agency Frontex but the Italian program went much further. Now Frontex’s maritime patrol operation Triton is supposed to replace these efforts. Or perhaps not. 

Even in the run-up to the new initiative, there has been an undignified back and forth about whether Mare Nostrum ends or continues to run parallel to the E.U. effort. Frontex and the European Union have graciously left it to Italy to decide whether Mare Nostrum continues. Triton will cover the territorial waters of Italy as well as parts of the search and rescue zones of Italy and Malta, Frontex’s website says. No plans exist for any operations outside national waters. 

Then there’s the money issue. Triton has a monthly budget of €2.9 million ($3.6 million) at its disposal. That is a laughably small amount compared to the €10 million that Italy paid monthly for Mare Nostrum and its 920-strong operational staff. How could Italy continue with its program and finance it alone, while keeping an eye on the European Union’s deficit criterion at the same time?

From an estimated three million Syrians who have fled their country, only a few tens of thousands have arrived in the European Union.

E.U. policies and the comments of many politicians with regard to immigration are not without cynical elements.

"Mare Nostrum was conceived as an emergency aid measure and proved to be a bridge to Europe,” said Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister.

The majority of refugees who embark on the nightmarish journey across the Mediterranean are from Syria and Iraq. It begs the question what exclusive sources Mr. de Maizière has that enables him to say the emergency situation there is over. Quite apart from the fact that E.U. states are also directly or indirectly involved in the region’s hostilities.

Mr. de Maizière’s comment matches the vocabulary being used by the North Italian and right-leaning Lega Nord party. It accused Mare Nostrum right from the start of exacerbating the stream of refugees. But that should be seen in context: In the case of the Syrians, it is obvious from their situation that they are not economic refugees. Secondly, from an estimated three million Syrians who have fled their country, only a few tens of thousands have arrived in the European Union.

But the whole discussion shows one thing above all: It is high time Europe had a uniform refugee and immigration policy.

It’s also useful to know 42 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants. Not all of them had a university degree in their back pockets, by a long shot. But they were hungry and had a dream of a better life. 


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