Refugees at Sea Triton Progam Fails Migrants

The E.U.'s new maritime border patrol has attracted widespread criticism, as hundreds of migrants die with the shores of sanctuary in sight.
A migrant who survived a shipwreck is brought ashore in Lampedusa harbor on Feb 11.

Last week's disaster in the Mediterranean is casting doubt on Triton, the European Union program for protecting Europe’s borders.

More than 300 people from Africa died trying to reach Europe, including 29 people who died of hypothermia on the deck of an Italian coast guard boat after being pulled from the water,

“That is shameful for the heads of state and government in the European Union. They must finally get serious with regard to the issue of immigration,” said Germany’s Birgit Sippel, a Social Democrat and member of the European Parliament.

About 430 migrants from Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gambia, had been forced by traffickers in Libya onto four open, inflatable rafts in rough weather. Many of them froze to death in the cold waters, and others drowned when their boats capsized.

On Friday another 600 migrants were rescued while around 2,000 people were rescued by the Italian coastguard on Sunday off the coast of Libya.

The European Union’s Triton program replaced Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue effort in late 2014, but Triton in much more limited in scope.

Since then, hundreds of Africans have died in attempting to cross the sea and reach Europe. Enrico Letta, Italy's former prime minister, is calling for the reintroduction of the Italian aid program: “Mare Nostrum is a sign of civilization, even if it costs votes.”

Pope Francis has issued an appeal for Europe to do more.

It was a big mistake to end the maritime rescue program Mare Nostrum. Ska Keller, Green Party member in the European Parliament

Italy’s current prime minister, Matteo Renzi, believes that the Triton program is not the real issue.

“The problem is not Mare Nostrum or Triton. A demand can be made to Europe to do more, and that is what I intend to do,” Mr. Renzi said. “But in political terms, it is a matter of solving the problem in Libya, where the situation is out of control.”

Triton is controversial. In contrast to Mare Nostrum, Triton is essentially limited to securing borders. Ships and aircraft patrolling under the direction of the E.U. agency Frontex are limited to action near coastlines. In practice, this means the ships and aircraft remain in national waters and don't go further to rescue vessels in distress.

Mare Nostrum, on the other hand, responded to distress situations in international waters.

In terms of equipment, Triton mainly uses speedboats, which are not big enough to take refugees aboard in an emergency.

“It was a big mistake to end the maritime rescue program Mare Nostrum,” said Germany’s Ska Keller, a Green Party member in the E.U. parliament. She said the European Union has turned the Mediterranean over to brutal traffickers and is endangering human lives.

“For a year and a half, we have been emphatically requesting an extension of the rescue capabilities in the Mediterranean,” said Laurens Jolles, the expert for Southern Europe at the U.N. Refugee Agency. He doesn't consider Triton to be a sufficient response to the critical problems.

Since its beginning in October 2013, Mare Nostrum saved the lives of 189,000 refugees, and turned 439 alleged traffickers over to judicial authorities.

According to the UNHCR, almost 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2014.

The example of Italy shows that with regard to the immigration issue, Europe is overburdened. Leaders on the continent are seemingly incapable of finding a solution for people who flee hunger, war and dictatorships in their own countries and seek refuge in Europe.

The European Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker has promised improvements and is working on a European policy on immigration.

Among other things, E.U. officials in Brussels intend to take tougher measures against human traffickers.

“We have to stop the trade in human trafficking and create a framework for security and legal protection,” Mr. Juncker said. This includes opening more paths for legal immigration, he said, adding that permission must be given to a clearly limited number of migrants to come to Europe in a legal and controlled manner — also through an extension of the Blue Card Initiative introduced in 2012 that allows non-E.U. citizens to work in the European Union.

Mr. Juncker is also calling for more money to be allocated to border protection agency Frontex, and for greater cooperation between E.U. and non-E.U. countries with regards to repatriation programs.


Katharina Kort covers the Italian economy and politics for Handelsblatt. Thomas Ludwig is Handelsblatt's Europe correspondent in Brussels. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]