• Italy's Mare Nostrum operation was launched last year (Photo: EUobserver)

EU mission to help Italy save boat migrants

28.08.14 @ 09:30

  1. By Benjamin Fox
  2. Benjamin email

BRUSSELS - The EU is to launch a “Frontex plus” mission in autumn to help Italy on the search and rescue of Mediterranean boat migrants.

  • The UN estimates that nearly 2,000 migrants have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean sea. (Photo: Orazio Esposito)

Home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom announced the move after a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday (27 August) with Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano.

Referring to the EU’s border-control agency, Frontex, in Warsaw, she said: “Two ongoing Frontex operations, Hermes and Aeneas, will be merged and extended into a new upgraded operation. The aim is to put in place an enlarged 'Frontex plus' to complement what Italy has been doing."

“This operation should in principle succeed the Hermes operation and we hope that it can be in place by the end of November.”

The commission hopes Frontex plus will ultimately replace the Italian government’s sea rescue operation, known as Mare Nostrum, launched last autumn.

The move comes after repeated requests from the Italian government for more help in coping with the thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

More than 300 were killed trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the past week, bringing the death toll to almost 1,900 this year.

“It has been clear that this is not an effort that Italy can carry out all alone,” Malmstrom noted, adding that “Frontex will need more money”.

Finding the resources to fund EU border control has proved difficult, however.

Frontex’s budget was in fact cut from €93.9 million to €89.1 million in 2014 and governments are still battling over its 2015 allowance.

“We will ask for other member states to contribute. The more they do so in terms of ships and helicopters, the larger the extension of the Frontex Plus operation will be,” Italy’s Alfano said.

Italy, along with fellow Mediterranean countries Malta, Spain, Cyprus and Greece, has long sought more support from fellow EU countries.

More than 100,000 migrants arrived in Italy so far this year, compared to 42,000 arrivals in the whole of 2013.

But other EU countries have been reluctant to stump up extra money or move towards a more harmonised system for handling asylum applications.

For his part, Gianni Pitella, the leader of the European Parliament’s centre-left Socialist and Democrat group, also called on EU countries to “take action and share responsibility” in a statement on Wednesday.

“Asylum seekers must not have to risk their lives at sea in order to exercise a fundamental right. We need to defend the right to seek asylum and protect people in need”.