• 'Gateway to Europe': Lampedusa monument to migrants who died at sea, by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino (Photo: DukeUnivLibraries)

  • The Mare Nostrum HQ near Rome - the screens show ship activity on the waters around Italy and Africa (Photo: EUobserver)

Italy: struggling to make itself heard on migration

07.07.14 @ 09:23

  1. By Honor Mahony
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Rome - In the hills just outside Rome, tucked away from the road and about 50km from the coast, is the headquarters from where Italy struggles to deal with one of Europe's most pressing social crises - migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life.

In the gleaming building, officers from the Italian navy monitor large screens, assessing a steady stream of information about the kind of vessels that are on the busy sea.

They are looking for "anomalies" - boats going in a direction at odds with the formal destination they have given, boats that, through thermal scanning, show warmth where normally dead fish would be stowed, or boats which are not moving.

"This headquarters is on the frontline," says the head of Italy's navy, Filippo Foffi. But, with an area of 73,000 square kilometres to cover, he says "it's not easy to detect where the bad guys are."

A main indicator of how many boats are going to try to make it to Italy from northern Africa at any given time is the weather.

When it is mild and the sea is calm off the coast of Libya, then around 10 boats usually set off. The north African country, in a state of anarchy, is the point of departure for the vast majority of migrants - often fleeing Syria or the Horn of Africa - crossing the Mediteranean.

On one day alone last week, some 20 boats left. Usually they are rubber dinghies about 7-12 metres in length.

If they sail in a straight line they can reach the Italian coast in a day or less. But this assumes they manage to sail - without GPS - in the right direction.

Another frequent launching point is Alexandria in Egypt. As it is further from Italy, a "mother ship" tows a small boat along behind it before cutting it adrift near the Italian coast.

The small boats are hard to detect. They are not in the official system, where details about cargo, departure and destination are filed into a central information network. Those monitoring the sea instead look for details about the size and features of the boat from the satellite picture to determine whether it has human cargo.

74,000 rescued

The boat that sank off the coast of Lampedusa last October killing 366 people was one which slipped across the seas undetected. No one noticed until it was too late.

That boat was the reason why Italy launched its Mare Nostrum programme later the same month.

It was the first formal response to the human tides unleashed in the messy aftermath of the Arab Spring, which saw the number of migrants choosing the Mediterranean route more than triple between 2012 (13,267) and 2013 (42,925).

Since the programme's launch almost 74,000 migrants have been rescued. But many never make it. Nobody knows how many have died at sea.

The migrants are crammed onto the vessels - one recently contained 645 people - without room for basic needs, without enough food and water, and exposed to the glaring sunshine.

The majority are men, but an increasing number are women and children. Of the just over 49,000 people that the navy has rescued as part of the Mare Nostrum programme alone, around 6,000 were under 18 years. Some of the children travelled alone, with no adult. These are the ones most in "danger", says Foffi.

The programme involves Italy's navy, coast guard, police, airforce and health ministry.

If a boat carrying migrants is located, a typical operation out at sea would involve one of the five major Italian ships sailing to within a short distance of it, releasing a smaller boat to sail to the migrants and then transferring them to the bigger ship.

They are given a medical examination, food, and water. Those in a state of medical emergency are flown to hospital. The rescued ones are also asked questions about smugglers.

Around 300 human traffickers have been prosecuted so far. "Prosecution means many years of jail in Italy," says Foffi.

Mare Nostrum represents a major change in approach for Rome. Just two years prior to its launch, Italy had a policy of pushing migrants back to Libya. But as Libya itself descended into chaos, this became harder to justify.

Now Italy's five ships act as "hubs" for rescues and it has accepted more of the responsibility for the waters off its coast.

"If we leave all the migrants go to Malta, it may be that within one year the migrants will be more than the population of Malta," says Foffi, referring to the tiny EU member state, which is another popular destination.

Seeking EU help

But the programme comes at both a financial and a political price.

Initially slated to cost around €1 million a month, it is turning out to be as much as nine times that price. Meanwhile, right wing politicians want it abolished saying it attracts more migrants.

Past efforts to get fellow member states to put migration on the political agenda have failed. Germany, for instance, argues that it processes proportionally many more asylum seekers than Italy.

With domestic pressure growing, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wants to use his country's EU presidency to get some more support.

"The Mediterranean Sea is not an Italian sea. It is the border of Europe. It is the heart of Europe. That is why we need a European policy for the Mediterranean," he said recently in Rome.

He called for an increase in investment, particularly to extend the EU's border programme, Frontex, to help with Mare Nostrum: "Budgetary decisions need to be made."

Italy also needs Libya's co-operation. It wants Libya to agree to allow the UN refugee agency to set up in the country to manage the flows - separating asylum seekers and economic migrants - directly from there.

For the moment though, the naval operation continues. But there is grumbling within the navy itself about the humanitarian operation which it says should only be a stopgap response and which is using up money that could go for training or other military operations.

"This is money we cannot use for other important things," says Foffi.