Italian navy pleads for help saving migrant boats, saying it 'does not want a sea of death'

The rescue operation is costing £6m a month. Charlotte McDonald-Gibson reports from inside the marine control centre in Rome

Rome

Sailing in a straight line on a calm day, it would take a well-equipped boat about 10 hours to get from the Libyan coast to Lampedusa, the remote Italian island which has become a beacon for tens of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge from war or poverty.

Few of these migrant boats actually make it in that time, however. With just a magnetic compass to guide them, the people packed on rubber dinghies often make dangerous diversions into choppy waters.

For much of those perilous journeys, the men, women and children travel unseen among the merchant ships and fishing fleets which criss-cross the Mediterranean. Eventually they are spotted, perhaps by a fishing boat, radar system, commercial vessel or Italian naval ship. That is when their boat finally appears as a yellow dot on the screens of the Mare Nostrum control centre just outside Rome, and every minute counts as air and sea craft are dispatched to prevent another tragedy.

The Italian navy launched the Mare Nostrum operation in October 2013 after 366 people died in a shipwreck off Lampedusa, in one of the worst migrant boat disasters. So far, 73,686 people have been plucked from the sea in an operation costing the Italian navy up to €8m (£6m) a month.

The operation was meant to last only a few months, says Vice Admiral Filippo Maria Foffi, commander in chief of the Italian fleet. But the number of people setting sail for Europe in rickety vessels just keeps climbing, and the Italians have been left with little choice but to keep channelling resources to saving their lives, with pleas for more help from the EU largely ignored.

The anti-immigrant Northern League in Italy has called for the suspension of Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), but the government is well aware that the humanitarian consequences would be immense. "When children are put on board a boat and set adrift, no civilised nation can just watch. We need to save those children," says Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Italy and other Mediterranean nations argue that the migrants arriving on their shores are hoping to travel to the wealthier northern European nations. Therefore, the cost of saving them and the responsibility for rehousing them should be shared across the EU. It is an argument falling on deaf ears at a time when political parities across the bloc are still smarting from a surge in support for anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic parties at European Parliament elections in May.

EU heads of state meeting in Brussels late last month were meant to discuss opening up new legal channels for economic migrants and refugees to apply to live in Europe, thus reducing the chance that they will risk their lives at sea. The EU's home affairs chief, Cecilia Malmstrom, told The Independent on Sunday in an interview ahead of the summit that she hoped more nations would come forward and offer sanctuary to Syrian refugees, calling the response so far "pathetic".

None of these things happened; the issue was pushed off the agenda by a row over who should be the next president of the European Commission. A few days later, 100 more people were lost at sea in two separate incidents off the Italian coast.

"The reluctance of other EU member states to support Mare Nostrum and show solidarity to Italy raises worrying questions about the sustainability of this vital rescue operation," says Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe director for Human Rights Watch, warning that "lives are at stake" unless more financial and material support was forthcoming.

The Italian government has not given up hope – it has just taken over the rotating six-month presidency of the EU, and Prime Minister Renzi is using this opportunity to steer his counterparts towards a more collective approach. "The Mediterranean sea is not an Italian sea. It is the heart of Europe: that is why we need a European policy for the Mediterranean," he said at a press conference at the weekend, urging more investment from other member states.

There is little sign so far of a sudden surge in funding from other European governments. Frontex, which monitors and helps to patrol the EU land and sea borders, has actually had its budget slightly reduced this year, despite the numbers trying to reach Europe expected to reach a record high.

The agency recorded a 48 per cent jump in migrant arrivals between 2012 and 2013, the numbers surging because of the civil war in Syria and the political chaos in Libya, which has allowed the human smuggling networks to flourish. In the first four months of this year, 42,000 people entered the EU illegally – most of them in Italy – up from 12,400 in the same period last year.

Mr Renzi thinks that helping to stabilise Libya and sending teams from the UN refugee agency to the country to asses asylum applications on the ground would be a crucial first step to stopping the dangerous journeys. But that is unlikely to happen before the end of summer, when the calm waters bring a surge in crossing attempts.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, has appealed for other EU nations to provide frigates or planes, but for now the burden remains on Italy and its five naval ships which constantly patrol the Mediterranean. The Rome control room collates data from these ships and other governments and commercial entities, always on the lookout for anomalies which could signal a boat in distress. On a clear day, an average of 10 migrant boats are detected in the Mediterranean, with the navy picking up around 270 people every 24 hours.

The passengers are then transferred to an Italian vessel for medical and security screening. It is just the first step in an arduous journey through overcrowded migrant processing centres and lengthy asylum procedures, but at least they are safe from drowning.

"We have to transform the Mediterranean Sea – we do not want a sea of death," says Rear Admiral Michele Saponaro, who oversees the operations at the naval command centre. "I'm convinced Mare Nostrum helped to bring about this transformation."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas