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Death in the Mediterranean

Human Rights

Lieutenant captain Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso. © Isabelle Merminod

After the drowning of more than 370 migrants on 3 October 2013 just off the Italian island of Lampedusa, Italy set up the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation, through which the existing Italian coastguard operation would gain the support of the Italian navy.

After pressure from the EU, the operation was shut down in November 2014 in favour of an EU-sponsored surveillance operation – Triton. Triton is run by EU border agency Frontex and includes a limited search-and-rescue mandate, being primarily about border control.

In 2014, some 3,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean. In the first 4 months of 2015 alone, it is estimated that some 1,700 have died. In just one incident on 19 April a reported capsizing led to 700 deaths.

After this incident, EU ministers increased funding for Triton, while simultaneously focusing on a counter-strategy against smugglers and more resettlement programmes into Europe – although this last policy has been contested by some EU governments.

Walking on thin ice

Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso, docked in Messina for maintenance, knows something of the dangerous migrant rescue operations.

The first problem is overloading the boats, he explains, which leads to them capsizing – frequently exactly at the point of rescue. He has never come across a boat that was not overloaded and therefore dangerous.

‘The minimum number I have taken from a rubber boat was 55 people… [The boat] was about 10 metres long,’ he says.

On the other hand, if the smuggler’s boat has two decks, death through asphyxiation can easily occur on the lower deck.

If the smugglers use a wooden boat, ‘constructed on two decks… people on the upper deck can cause the boat to capsize. But the people on the bottom deck of the boat can’t breathe… this is another risk… [the] engines and [the] high temperature.’

Esibini says that one of the most difficult scenarios for a captain is to have four or five ‘echoes’ on the radar screen at the same time. With little or no information about what kind of boats they’re facing, or the conditions on the boats, captains have to take a blind decision about which boat to save first.

He is also clear that the most dangerous part of a search-and-rescue operation is the moment of rescue. As rescuers approach, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to guide your rescuers. ‘If the [passengers] stand up, the boat capsizes.’

He generally stops his engines just under a kilometre from the boat waiting to be rescued. His rescue team then approaches by dinghy and speaks to the people: ‘To tell them they are safe. To say to them we will rescue them, but that they must stay calm and quiet.’

Touching wood, he adds: ‘I have never had a boat capsize. It is like [being] on “thin ice”.’

Triton’s failure

Throughout 2014, some European countries argued against Mare Nostrum. On 15 October 2014, Baroness Anelay of St Johns put forth the view of the British government:

‘We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations…We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths,’ she declared.

On Christmas Day 2014 – two months after the start of the Triton operation – Frontex announced its much-prophesied defeat.

‘Operation Triton cannot be expected to handle the migrant challenge alone. It has 2 aircrafts and a helicopter at its disposal, 2 open-sea patrol vessels, and 4 coastal ones: a fleet appropriate to its mandate, which is to control the EU’s borders, not to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean. Triton’s budget, at €2.9 million [$3.1million] a month, is one third of what Italy was spending on Operation Mare Nostrum.’

In Palermo on 13 March 2015, at a conference on the migration issue called Io Sono Persona (I am a person), the Director of the Italian Department of Civil Liberty and Immigration, Mario Morcone, stated:

‘I don’t believe that Mare Nostrum was a “pull factor”… I think it was a big and important humanitarian operation. We cannot push back the people.’

Most dangerous is the moment of rescue. As rescuers approach, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to guide your rescuers. ‘If the [passengers] stand up, the boat capsizes’

He pointed out that, whatever politicians across Europe say, Italy has signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires signatory countries to save people in distress at sea.

When asked about the difference between Mare Nostrum and the Frontex operation, Triton, he replied simply: ‘We must [carry out] the same operation with smaller ships.’

In 2014, ‘the total number of people saved under the co-ordination of the Italian search-and-rescue authority (MRCC Rome) was 166,370,’ according to the office of Admiral Angrisano, the head of Italy’s coastguard.

Some 38,000 were saved by the coastguard, 42,000 by international merchant ships and 82,000 by the Italian Navy.

But perhaps no single organization can be reasonably expected, to borrow from Frontex’s words, ‘to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean’.


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