Operation Mare Nostrum: One Year On

As one year will soon elapse, Italy is signaling to the EU that they wish to cease their mission, Operation Mare Nostrum, or “Our Sea,” and allow Frontex, a frontier border surveillance agency, to carry out the difficult burden of stemming migratory flows into Europe.

In October, 2013, more than 400 migrants drowned when their boat capsized off the coast of Italy’s tiny pelagie island of Lampedusa, which prompted Rome to launch Operation Mare Nostrum, an initiative designed to combat human trafficking and conduct search-and-rescue missions for irregular migrants at sea.

Since Mare Nostrum’s launch, Italy has already rescued more than 90,000 migrants and has incurred monthly operational costs of more than €9 million. In one week alone, 1,300 migrants landed in southern Italy; over the course of four days in April, Italy rescued close to 6,000 migrants.

Italy’s proactive approach in preventing migrant deaths is highly laudable but, of course, there are constraints to their operations.

This year, more than 3,000 migrants have perished in the dangerous, unrelenting seas of the Mediterranean–a death toll that outnumbers the figures of 2011 according to the International Organization for Migration. Italy, by default, is often blamed for tragedies like these, but very little attention is paid to the lack of comprehensive support from the EU.

The EU and Italy

Irregular migration has become a politically divisive issue amongst members states of the EU. Southern EU states, such as Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain, have had the greatest struggles in containing the flow of irregular migrants, and northern members states have been too reluctant to engage with them on this very issue, fomenting another internal crises that threatens the viability of the bloc’s unity since the Eurozone crises in 2009.

A prominent example occurred in October 2013,–the month of the tragic migrant shipwreck– where the EU had planned a two-day summit to address the U.S. spying incidents on several of its key European allies. The EU reluctantly decided to reserve the second day of the summit to review their migration policies after Italy had vociferously advocated for it. The summit’s results were nothing meaningful except for the announcement of more meetings.

Later that year in December, a task force was set up to address the issues of border surveillance, channels for legal immigration, proactive effort to combat trafficking, financial and logistical support, and developing ties with non-EU countries, as well as deeper level talks scheduled for June 2014.

Over the course of a year, the task force failed to make meaningful progress and Italy’s relationship with the EU frayed further, particularly in the area of burden sharing.

The EU, holding tightly to the Dublin II regulation, which requires migrant asylum requests to be processed in the country they land in, refused to take an active part in managing the migration burden. Witnessing this move by EU member states, Italy threatened to relax its border controls and allow migrants to cross over into neighboring countries without fingerprinting them.

Some influential voices within the EU have inferred that Operation Mare Nostrum is a pull factor for migrants, which Italian officials retorted was nonsensical, especially since many of the migrants were emerging from areas of instability and conflict such as Syria and Eretria.

Operation Triton      

In late August, the EU Commissioner, Cecila Malmström, announced that Frontex will merge two ongoing Operations, Aeneas and Hermes–both of which are dedicated to combating irregular migration–to create a new initiative called “Frontex Plus.”

Recently, however, the new operation was renamed to “Triton,” and critics noted that it does not meet Italy’s Mare Nostrum in size and scope. The monthly budget is close to €2.9 million per month, which is approximately €6 million short of what Italy spends, and its ability to conduct search-and-rescue missions is considered severely limited.

As Italy’s Mare Nostrum comes to a close, many questions have been raised as to how the bloc will respond to the growing migration pressure.

The EU must pick up where it left off last December with its task force. In order to disrupt the smugglers’ market, the EU must create new legal pathways for immigration and work with transit countries, like Libya, to intercept and prosecute smugglers. They must also work collectively to restart talks on a common migration policy as well as widen the mandate and budget of Operation Triton in order to ensure that tragedies of last October do not repeat itself.

Italy should be proud of Operation Mare Nostrum as it has won immense praise from major NGOs and has set a commendable standard for search-and-rescue operations. As the responsibility shifts to the EU, the question now looms if the bloc can meet those standards come this November with Operation Triton.

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