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25th Aug 2019

International waters likely off limits to EU migrant mission

  • The EU is set to launch Joint Operation Triton in November (Photo: Frontex)

Plans to restrict the EU border agency Frontex operations to an area close to the Italian coast could jeopardise lives should Italy’s Mare Nostrum be phased out.

“If this happens, Italy must maintain the Mare Nostrum operation because otherwise we will really go back to the situation before October 2013 and because the phenomenon of arrivals by sea will not stop,” said Christopher Hein at the Italian Refugee Council in Brussels on Tuesday (9 September).

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Mare Nostrum was launched in October 2013 following the drowning of some 350 boat migrants off the Italian island of Lampaedusa.

The operational range is important because most boat migrant interceptions take place in international waters and along the edge of Libya’s maritime boundary.

Territorial waters stretch 12 nautical miles from the coast, followed by a contiguous zone up to 24 miles, and then eventually international waters.

Details of the EU initiative remain murky, although Michele Cercone, EU home affairs spokesperson, told Italian media in late August that Frontex Plus (now called Joint Operation Triton) would not operate in international waters.

Cercone later confirmed in an email that “the operational area of Joint Operation Triton will be closer to the Italian shores than operational area of Mare Nostrum”.

“We cannot be more specific since the details are still in the process of being defined,” he added.

The commission announced at the proposal’s launch in late August that Triton would merge and extend on Hermes and Aeneas; two Frontex surveillance and “early detection” operations already in Italy.

But while Frontex itself participates in search and rescue operations, it does not co-ordinate them.

“There is a difference between that and saying Frontex is now a search and rescue organisation, because it is not, it participates, but it [search and rescue] is still co-ordinated by national authorities,” said an EU official close to the issue.

Instead, the official noted special search and rescue (SAR) zones exist in places like Malta, which requires national authorities to conduct the life saving missions themselves.

Malta has avoided hosting Frontex in part because it doesn’t want to have to disembark intercepted migrants at its own ports.

Concerns are also being raised should Italy decide to wind down the €9 million-a-month naval mission, which has so far saved some 115,000 people since the start of the year.

Experts estimate the total will likely increase to around 150,000 to 160,000 by the end of 2014.

Aside from the war in Syria, which has forced three million out of the country, the sharp increase of boat migrants over the year is also linked to the large numbers of Eritreans.

Many Eritreans leaving in boats from the Libyan coast come from large reception centres based in Kenya and Sudan.

Others may now come from Israel after Israeli authorities imposed severe restrictions on its asylum seeking population.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused Israeli authorities of unlawfully coercing almost 7,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals into returning to their home countries.

“Destroying people’s hope of finding protection by forcing them into a corner and then claiming they are voluntarily leaving Israel is transparently abusive,” said one researcher in a statement at the human rights group.

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