Migrant rescue mission cuts a 'clear moral flaw'

Migrant rescue mission cuts a 'clear moral flaw'
Rights group says change of Mediterranean rescue mission to a coastal patrol will cost lives and do nothing to deter people trying to reach Europe, as thousands are rescued by Italy over weekend.
3 min read
16 February, 2015

Italy rescued more than 2,800 migrants between Friday 13 and Sunday 15 February in an operation between the Libyan coast and the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The operation was coordinated by the Italian coastguard using its own boats as well as those of Italian police and other commercial vessels, Amnesty International told al-Araby al-Jadeed. A total of 18 vessels were involved.

Italy's transport minister, Maurizio Lupi, said that, during the operation, four men carrying Kalashnilov guns had driven a speedboat from the Libyan coast and forced some of the coastguards to return a boat emptied of migrants.

But this is only the latest incident. Last week more than 300 migrants died attempting the route across the Mediterranean from North Africa.

The migrants, who were mainly from West Africa, travelled in inflatable rubber dinghys, which collapsed in stormy weather. Survivors told Amnesty that they had been forced into the dinghys by armed traffickers during bad weather, after paying them 650 euros for the journey.

Mare Nostrum vs Triton

The deaths expose the limited capacity of Triton, the EU naval mission in the Med that replaced the Italian navy's Mare Nostrum operations in November.

Mare Nostrum was a "search and rescue" mission, while Triton is essentially a border patrol operation which does not regularly patrol deep water - where disasters often occur.

Triton also has more limited resources - it costs 3m euros per month to run, while Mare Nostrum used to cost 9m euros per month.

Many had argued that cutting any mission down would discourage migrants from trying to reach Europe.

British policy was spelled out in October in a House of Lords written answer, Lady Anelay, the UK's new foreign office minister.

She said search and rescue operations had "an unintended 'pull factor', encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths".

"The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who [are] packing migrants into unseaworthy boats."

However, the problems have worsened since Triton became active. Amnesty campaigner Matteo de Bellis said: "What we're seeing is an increased number of migrants with a lower number of resources."

The number of migrants willing to attempt the crossing has grown since 2014, already a year of exceptionally high numbers, driven by deepening conflicts in their home countries, particularly in Libya and Syria.

     You can't let people drown just to deter others.
Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty

European countries who wanted to replace Mare Nostrum with Triton "have to wake up and address their responsibilities by deploying resources at sea for rescue, because the priority is to save lives," de Bellis said.

"There is a clear moral flaw" in the deterrence argument, he added. "You can't let people drown just to deter others."

In a statement on Monday evening, Amnesty urged the EU "to provide collective and concerted search and rescue operations along routes taken by migrants, to at least the same level as Mare Nostrum".

In the meantime, Italy is left to provide additional resources for the rescue operations.

In 2014, nearly 3,500 people died trying to reach Italy from North Africa, according to the UNHCR, while numbers of migrants undertaking the journey are expected to continue rising.