EU’s Operation Triton to help Italy cope with migrants

Immigrant boat

Clandestine boats in Lampedusa harbor, on July 17, 2013. The Sicilian island is a primary European entry point for migrants from Africa and the Mideast. [Shutterstock]

The European Union plans to launch a mission to help Italy cope with swarms of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, and avoid more disasters at sea, the EU said on Tuesday (7 October).

Called Operation Triton, the mission will be managed by Europe’s border control agency, Frontex. It will reinforce Italy’s own rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which began after 366 people drowned just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa, when their boat capsized a year ago.

Italy has repeatedly called for more help from the EU to cope with the record number of sea-borne arrivals from conflict-torn Libya and Syria over the past year. Mare Nostrum, or “Our Sea,” has been costing Italy €9 million a month, straining the resources of its navy and coast guard.

“With the launch of the Triton operation, tailored to the needs and requests defined by the Italian authorities, the EU can show concrete solidarity to Italy, by reinforcing its border surveillance and supporting its humanitarian efforts,” said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in a statement yesterday.

Frontex has called on member states for contributions to the new mission, which is expected to cost €2.9 million a month, so that it can begin on 1 November.

In addition to two Italian patrol vessels, Frontex is hoping to deploy two surveillance aircraft, and three more vessels, in order to patrol the waters up to 30 miles from Italy’s southern coast.

EU officials said Germany, France and Spain had already indicated they would help, although they could provide no details on what the three countries might contribute.

More than 100,000 migrants have arrived by sea so far this year in Italy. In September, the International Organisation for Migration reported that almost 3,000 people had drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in 2014.

Questions remain over the future of Mare Nostrum, which was originally envisaged as an emergency response to the flows of migrants from North Africa. Last Friday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Mare Nostrum would not be stopped until the EU came up with something just as good, or better.

Given that Triton’s budget is just a third of Mare Nostrum’s, it is unclear how Frontex would manage to patrol the seas if Mare Nostrum were to be abandoned. 

Since 1999, the EU has been working to create a Common European Asylum System, and set up a border agency called Frontex.  More recently, the European Parliament examined proposals to set up a new European border management system within Eurosur, the European external border surveillance system.

But the financial and economic crisis has taken its toll on Frontex, whose funding has been cut from €115 million in 2011 to €85 million this year after pressure from Britain and other northern EU countries to curb spending during the sovereign debt crisis.

New EU rules have been agreed, setting out common standards and co-operation to ensure that asylum-seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system – wherever they apply.

But EU countries rejected a European Commission proposal that solidarity should apply and that asylum seekers from the countries mostly affected from the arrival of migrants should be relocated in other EU members.

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