Between Mare Nostrum and Frontex: migrants flow as a European matter

The first semester of 2014 has been an exceptional year of illegal arrivals and immigration to the South of Europe, in particular to Sicily and in minor parts, to the South of Italy. Records show that in this period, illegal migrants have soared up to 65,000 so far (in 2013 were almost 5000), and in most cases disembarkations were accompanied by humane tragedies. The only effort to stop this migration is set up by men and women of the Mare Nostrum Operation, a military operation of the Italian Navy under the supervision of Frontex and the surveillance of Eurosur. This operation started last October, but in those days it seems to have arrived to a premature end because of the debate between the Italian Government and the European Union. If the decision to put an end to this operation is real, there will be tragic consequences for whole Europe, such as illegal immigration uncontrolled and the failure of the Border Management for the European Union and its agencies.

The arrivals or illegal disembarkations were a regular phenomenon for Italian summers, but with the recent evolutions in the international arena, in the North of Africa and in Middle East, these have become an all-seasons long history, with migrants departing from Libya or Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia but also from Syria (although it is impossible to say how many people departed from Aleppo, in the last months the Immigration Shelter in Sicily has surveyed almost 800 migrants from Syria). There are many reasons for which they decide to leave their country, for example the civil wars in the North of Africa or the lack and insurrectional powers in Middle East, all considered to be conditions available to obtain political asylum.

An usual “trip” from Libya or Egypt to Sicily with other 800 people on the same boat usually lasts few days, and the boat driver takes almost USD 3,000 per person, not assuring that the passengers will arrive, as the tragedy in October 2013 testified, when 360 Africans drowned off near the Island of Lampedusa. Migrants coming from North Africa are usually intercepted by the soldiers of Mare Nostrum Operation, which aims also at preventing any tragedy in the sea. Even if this border management has been widely discussed in those days, what is not clear is the cross-border legislation within Frontex, Eurosur, the Nato (which has vessels throughout the Mediterranean Sea) and the Italian Navy – Marina Militare Italiana.

It could seem that the Sicilian channel is full of actors, but the reality is that Eurosur is only a surveillance system, mostly automatized, which uses drones, electromagnetic radars and other electronic resources to control the area. The Frontex institution instead has the main task of supervising the Mare Nostrum Operation because, according to the European Legislation, matters related to borders with foreign countries (external to the European Union), are due to be executed under the authority of the nation concerned. For this reason Frontex, nowadays is considered to be the military wing of Europe because of its armoury, has the only task of supervisor.

Migrants flow

Frontex was created in 2004 in Warsaw. Its original and main tasks were to patrol the external European borders, whether air, maritime or inland borders, to care for refugees or asylum-seekers and to co-ordinate with other institutions for migration, both internal and external (the Schengen treaty is considered to be a precursor of Frontex for matters related to cross-border cooperation). The last official mission in Sicilian Channel was in 2008, a year that marked a passage of control from Frontex to the other actors involved. In this arena the decision of the Italian Government to suspend the Mare Nostro Operation, caused a great debate with the European Agency Frontex, mainly because its end could cause a lack of the authority in charge of patrolling the channel, with terrible consequences. This decision has been taken for two main reasons: from one side it is a really expensive operation (EUR 10 million per month since when it started, in October 2013), and on the other side Italy feels alone in Europe managing this matter and accuses Brussels not to give any help in this. Since last October, when the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström said that would be organized an operation to prevent other tragedies in the sea, surveillance and patrol systems have increased, but much remain to be done. As Frontex cannot substitute the Mare Nostrum Operation because it has not enough capitals, what makes the regional problem an European matter is that a lack of authority could cause massive immigration towards Europe, and not only continental Europe. Italy is considered by migrants as “just an harbour”, a place where to arrive, relatively near to the North of Africa and a starting point to enter in Europe and to flow from Italy to other countries, such as Germany or France. This can be also testified by Eurostat charts published at the beginning of 2014 about the asylum-seekers applications in Germany. In the last year this country received 127,000 applications from migrants whereas Italy “only” 27,000 (in the chart published by the Eurostat, France occupies the second position with 66,000 applications and United Kingdom the fourth, with 30,000 applicants).

If Mare Nostrum Operation comes to an end, there will also be other problems concerned: since this operation worked well, its absence could cause problems also for the humanitarian agencies involved. If this should be the case, there would be more refugees but less control, more tragedies during the trip and more dead. Whether this debate over the control and patrol of Sicilian channel could bring, it is really important to consider that there is the life of migrants at stake, and that each country has the ethical and public responsibility to intervene to protect European borders, not only Italian ones, and to prevent tragedies. This can be only achieved through considering illegal migrants flow a European problem that must be faced by the whole of Europe.