The Italian Navy’s twitter feed contained joyous news last week: a pregnant mother among the 90 people rescued from the sea by a Navy frigate had given birth on board to a little girl, Yambambi. Over that weekend more than 1,600 people were rescued.
While the birth was unusual, the rescue was only the latest in an ongoing Italian Navy effort to save the lives of migrants and refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching safety in Europe.
The Italian operation, known as Mare Nostrum, has rescued over 70,000 people since it began last October in the wake of a boat wreck off Lampedusa that left more than 360 dead. War in Syria, human rights abuses in Eritrea and armed conflict in Libya are driving people to make the desperate journey, and for many Mare Nostrum has been the difference between life and death. Little wonder that the Pope praised its “admirable work” last week.
But there are storm clouds on the horizon. Worried about the operating costs - around €9Million a month - and domestic criticism, the Italian government has repeatedly asked the European Union to take responsibility for the operation. Those calls have been largely ignored, with other EU member states reluctant to defray costs or share responsibility for rescuing migrants or processing them once they land.
Late in August, there seemed to be a breakthrough, when the European Commissioner for Home Affairs announced Frontex Plus, an upgraded operation merging two existing border surveillance operations in the Med by the EU border agency Frontex and intended to “complement” or “replace” Mare Nostrum.
But on closer examination, Frontex Plus turns out to be more of a Frontex Minus.
For a start, unlike Mare Nostrum, the mission looks certain to operate only in Italian and other EU territorial waters and not in the international waters off the Libyan coast, from which the vast majority of the rickety boats originate. Only this week, 500 migrants were feared dead after a ship was sunk by traffickers off the coast of Libya. It is only the latest in a series of deadly sinkings this summer. While Mare Nostrum cannot be everywhere, Frontex Plus’s narrow geographic focus will put more lives at risk. Little wonder the UN refugee agency UNHCR is worried.
The mandate of Frontex Plus will be similarly constrained, with its purpose to be border enforcement, not search and rescue. This means much greater danger for those making the crossing. Although Frontex does now have an explicit duty to respect human rights and refugee law, the agency’s operations at the EU’s external frontiers, in Greece and in Bulgaria, have coincided with a closing of those borders and problems accessing asylum.
Detractors of Mare Nostrum assert that the operation is unsustainable and that it serves as a pull factor that may actually jeopardize lives, by encouraging people to make the crossing in the hope of rescue by the Italian Navy.
The sustainability point is a serious one. But it is for precisely those reasons that Italy has sought a broader European response. The costs of the operation would be manageable if they were spread more evenly across EU countries. The EU has a humanitarian aid budget of €1 billion annually, which amounts to about 1 percent of the EU's total budget. Considering that Mare Nostrum is directed to the ultimate humanitarian purpose — saving lives — the costs seem easy to justify.
As to pull factors, critics seem to ignore the facts: Italy says that more than 80 percent of those arriving are refugees, mainly fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Somalia and human rights abuses in Eritrea. The sometimes brutal and summary pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers at the EU land borders with Turkey, and the deteriorating security situation and abuses against migrants in Libya also help explain the unusually large numbers making the crossing by sea this year.
Even if Mare Nostrum is a pull factor, the logic of those who criticize it seems to be that it is better to let some people drown in order to discourage others.
What Frontex Plus shows is that the EU is still failing to grasp the point about boat migration. Boat migration across the Mediterranean is a reality. Europe can turn away from those whose lives are at risk in the name of border security, or follow Italy’s admirable lead and mitigate the risks as best as they can.
For the sake of Yambambi and her mother, and our shared humanity, let’s hope they choose the latter.
Benjamin Ward is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.