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23rd Feb 2020

EU migrant mission will not replace Mare Nostrum

  • The prospect of a limited Frontex plus operation is raising fears that more boat migrants will perish (Photo: Frontex)

The EU border agency Frontex's expanded role in the Mediterranean will be limited when compared to Italy’s own naval search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum.

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told euro-deputies in Brussels on Wednesday (3 September) the so-called Frontex plus will not replace Mare Nostrum, but will act as a complementary effort, which will be reliant on member state resources and budget constraints.

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“Frontex plus is not a replacement for Mare Nostrum. What exactly will happen to Mare Nostrum is an Italian issue, it is not for us to decide,” said the Swedish commissioner.

Mare Nostrum was launched in the aftermath of a mass drowning near the Italian island of Lampedusa last October and is credited with having saved around 100,000 people since the beginning of this year.

Malmstrom noted the success of the Italian operation has created a pull factor and made the sea crossing attempts more dangerous.

“The tragic backslide of this is that it has also increased trafficking intensity on the other side of the Mediterranean, which means that people have been put in even more unsafe vessels and even smaller boats because of the likelihood of them being saved", she said.

Italy’s government has stepped up pressure in recent months for member states to shoulder more responsibility on Mediterranean boat migrants, with Mare Nostrum costing Italy around €9 million a month.

The idea of an EU version of the sea mission, which is not expected to operate in international waters and which is to be much smaller, had raised concern it could not save as many people if Mare Nostrum was phased out.

“I don’t see how a border control agency [Frontex] can all of sudden turn humanitarian,” said German Green MEP Ska Keller. “How exactly is it going to work?”

For its part, the UN refugee agency told The Guardian newspaper over the weekend that more people are likely to die if Frontex plus, set for launch in November, leads to fewer Italian patrols.

Meanwhile, Malmstrom on Wednesday was unable to answer MEPs who wanted her to disclose the mission's mandate, operational details, and costs.

“Frontex does not have the capacity to do Mare Nostrum. We don’t have the same amount of people. We don’t have the mandate. We don’t have the money. We don’t have the resources,” she said.

She added that more migrants are likely to come in future due to the multiplication of conflicts in the EU's southern neighbourhood and due to poverty.

The commission is in talks with Italy to see what Frontex might need in terms of assets from member states, budget, and geographic scope for the new operation.

France recently pledged to back the operation, with Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maiziere making similar announcements on Tuesday.

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