This week marked the start of the so-called ‘safe sea’ operation, a programme to increase Italy’s humanitarian military presence in the Mediterranean, announced by Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
“We intend to increase our supply of people and supplies threefold for a military-humanitarian deployment in the southern Mediterranean Sea. Such action is partially necessary because Libya is a ‘non-state’ at the moment”, Letta said in an interview with Italian daily Avvenire on Sunday.
The commitment from Italy to better police its borders came shortly after hundreds of migrants drowned when the ship carrying them from North Africa sank in the Mediterranean this month.
“We need committed measures, to prevent unseaworthy ships from ever embarking”, Letta said.
His Maltese counterpart, Joseph Muscat, called at the same time for a more coherent European approach to refugee policy. “The Mediterranean Sea threatens to become a graveyard,” he warned.
EU Commission to better equip Frontex
Italian marines currently have three warships deployed in the region. These are supported by four helicopters and two reconnaissance planes with night vision technology. According to media reports, an unmanned drone could also be deployed to better keep tabs on unregistered vessels embarking from North Africa.
The intention of the Italian government is to intensify its military presence in the Mediterranean Sea only temporarily. Over the long-term, Italy wnts a concerted and concrete EU response.
The Italian government reportedly intends to intensify its military presence in the Mediterranean only temporarily, banking on stronger measures from the European Union in the future.
According to Letta, swift action is necessary to get the current “explosion” of migrants from Libya under control.
EU Commissioner for Internal Affairs Cecilia Malström has called for more resources for the EU’s border control agency, Frontex. The agency currently operates in the Mediterranean under the framework of Operation Hermes, a programme aimed at monitoring the impacts of migratory flows in the region.
Ska Keller, a German green MEP who is a substitute on the justice and home affairs committee, called for long-term strengthening and better coordination of civilian sea rescue operations.
“The EU cooperates quite well in fending off refugees. Frontex proves this. Coordination on civilian sea rescue operations, in contrast, does not take place at all”, Keller told EurActiv.de.
According to unconfirmed reports, civilian ships passed the Lampedusa-bound ship after it had started sinking but did not offer assistance.
When border protection officials or military units find themselves near a sinking ship, they should be legally obliged to help the refugees, Keller said.
But the deployment of military forces for the specific purpose of sea rescue risks sending the wrong message to the international community. Simultaneous ‘fending off’ and rescuing refugees may seem like a contradiction.
“That would entail putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” Keller said.
The situation off Italy’s Mediterranean coast is becoming increasingly acute, in the aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy. Last Friday (11 October), 34 more refugees lost their lives near the small Italian island. Every year, more and more refugees attempt to make the journey from North Africa to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea before the winter chill sets in and their chance is lost.
Libya: deadly shots at migrants
The survivors of last week's accident reported being shot at during their departure from Libya. At least two migrants were killed. At the time of publication, it was unclear whether militants of the Libyan military were responsible for the shots.
Following the incident, Libya announced its intention to take a harder stance against refugees. At a meeting with the Maltese prime minister, Libyan premier Ali Zeidan urged Europe to take a more coordinated approach against migrants.
Zeidan has already asked the EU for support on this front, and Libya has already used European satellite technology to better police the Libyan sea and land borders.
Muscat further called for aid in restoring the stability of the North African state. “A lack of stability in Libya means no security in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Italy and Libya have cooperated on refugee policy for many years. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi concluded a ‘Friendship Treaty’ with Muammar Gaddafi in 2007 and promised Libya more than €5 billion to fund various border protection measures.
Additionally, both countries implemented common measures to hold back the flow of migrants in 2009. Within six months, the military had forced back roughly 3000 refugees on the high seas.
After the 2011 Libyan civil war, the two countries reinforced their cooperation with a new treaty. In the document, Libya stated its intention for the strong supervision of its coastlines.