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20th Sep 2019

Frontex mission to extend just beyond Italian waters

Triton, the EU-led surveillance mission in the Mediterranean Sea, will operate up to 30 nautical miles from the Italian coastline and cost €2.9 million per month.

The EU-border agency Frontex is asking member states to contribute two aircraft, three patrol vessels, and around 20 to 30 guest officers to help Italy interview disembarked boat migrants in Sicily.

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“This request is based on what Italy has asked for, in a sense of what Italy feels they need support with to be able to control this area, monitor their border, and to carry out search and rescue,” one EU official told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday (7 October).

Italy will contribute two boats - one patrol vessel and a larger boat with a long-range distance. Germany, France, and Spain have also said they are ready to provide equipment.

Triton was set up at the request of the Italians in an effort to boost sea surveillance capabilities as a “complement” to Italy’s search and rescue naval operation Mare Nostrum.

The Triton aircraft will be allowed to go beyond the 30 nautical mile mark for “search and rescue reasons”, said the official.

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

The range is important because most boats are intercepted closer to Libya’s maritime zone.

The “search and rescue” distinction is also important because Frontex and its Triton mission officially have a border surveillance mandate. It means search and rescue is not entirely excluded should the border agency be confronted with people in distress.

“If a Frontex boat spots a migrant boat in distress, they will intervene, and do search and rescue,” a second EU official said.

Triton is considerably smaller in scale and limited in operational scope when compared to Mare Nostrum.

Mare Nostrum covers 43,000 square kilometres and overlaps with the Maltese and Libyan search and rescue zones.

The naval operation has rescued around 91,000 since the start of the year and was launched following a boating tragedy in October 2013, which saw 368 people drown some 200 metres from the coast of Lampedusa.

Around 120,000 boat migrants have arrived this year with around 3,000 confirmed deaths, making the Mediterranean Sea one of the deadliest migrant routes in the world.

Concerns have surfaced that Italian authorities may scale back or end their naval operation following Triton’s launch set for early November.

In August, Italy’s minister of interior Angelino Alfano at a press conference had announced Mare Nostrum “won’t live another year, because however commendable, it was meant as a short-term operation.”

The EU says it has no information from Italy concerning if or when Mare Nostrum will end but would not rule out expanding the operational plans of Triton if needed.

“If Italy changes its own national efforts whatever they are whether it is called Mare Nostrum or not then indeed there might be a need to change the operational plan and to expand the operation [Triton] within the limits of the Frontex mandate,” said the EU official.

The proximity of Italy’s rescues to the Libyan coast is also said to have intensified human trafficking because more migrants are forced to embark on less sea-worthy boats to cover the small distance.

EU border agency 'overwhelmed' by offers of equipment

The EU’s border agency has received more offers of equipment than it needs as it starts its migrant surveillance operation in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Italy has indicated its naval search and rescue operation will continue.

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