“You can’t stop immigration by sea at sea, you can only save lives.”
So we were told today at the headquarters of the Italian Coast Guard in Rome. While the EU is struggling for an effective political response, the Italian Coast Guard has long been dealing with the realities of migration at sea. Since 1991, 638,612 migrants at distress in the Mediterranean have been saved, thanks to search and rescue missions led by the Italian Coast Guard.
In 2015 alone, 154,018 mostly Sub-Saharan migrants paid hundreds of thousands of Euros to smugglers to board overcrowded rubber boats or fishing vessels – hardly able to make the journey from the shores of Libya, Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria to the coasts of Lampedusa or Sicily.
Despite new technology and satellite phone equipment on many refugee boats, the sheer size of the area surveilled by the Italian Coast Guard (about half of the Mediterranean) poses a great challenge to its work, despite support from the EU’s border guard agency Frontex. Due to the lack of a Libyan rescue service and Italy’s commitment to the highest standards of humanitarian rescue at sea, Italian ships patrol off the Libya coast to rescue vulnerable migrant boats. As a rule, any boat carrying migrants is deemed worthy of rescue; if not yet in distress, they pose a significant risk to other shipping. So reliable is rescue by the Italians that smugglers typically order their passengers to call for assistance – regardless of the state of their vessel – when away from the Mediterranean’s southern coast. Unlike the images of refugees beaching on Greek shores, now all but a handful of refugees headed to Italy are rescued out at sea.
Equally impressive is the work of the Red Cross, which provides crucial assistance to refugees at the point of disembarking, including medical checks and the provision of food, water and clothes. As explained by two of its Italian representatives today, the Red Cross disregards any legal differences between a “migrant” and a “refugee” and provides assistance simply according to the need of any human being, regardless of his or her legal status.
At the same time, the Red Cross today strongly countered allegations that naval search and rescue missions, such as the “Mare Nostrum” operation in 2013 have led to an increase in migration flows. Both made it clear that migrant flows had begun in force before these rescue efforts and show no sign of abating. Our meetings, however, also made clear that migrants have to be better informed about the risks of migration and the potential myths that lead them to undertake the dangerous journey to Europe.