Death in the Mediterranean

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Death in the Mediterranean

It is very dangerous to look for and rescue migrants. Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod talk to people doing this in the Mediterranean.


Lieutenant captain Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso. © Isabelle Merminod

More than 370 migrants died in the sea on 3 October 2013 near the Italian island of Lampedusa. After that, Italy started the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation, so Italian coastguards would get help from the Italian navy.

But they had to stop this in November 2014 after pressure from the EU. And an EU-sponsored surveillance operation – Triton – started instead. Frontex (an EU border agency) runs this. And it is mainly to control the border – it has some power to search the migrants as well as rescue them.

In 2014, about 3,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean. In the first 4 months of 2015, about 1,700 have died. On 19 April 700 died.

After this, EU ministers gave more money to the Triton operation. But they also worked on a plan against smugglers and more programmes to resettle migrants into Europe. Some EU governments have not agreed to the resettlement plan.


Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso, now in Messina for work on the ship, knows a lot about the dangerous migrant rescue operations.

The first problem is too many people on the boats, he says. So the boats turn over into the sea, often at the time of rescue. He has never seen a boat that didn’t have too many people.

‘The minimum number I have taken from a rubber boat was 55 people… [The boat] was about 10 metres long,’ he says.

Also, if the smuggler’s boat has two decks (levels), people can easily die from not enough air on the lower deck.

If the smugglers use a wooden boat, ‘with two decks… people on the upper deck can cause the boat to turn over. But the people on the bottom deck of the boat can’t breathe… this is another risk… [the] engines and [the] high temperature.’

Esibini says that one of the most difficult times for a captain is when they see four or five boats on the radar screen at the same time. They have no idea what kind of boats they are, so captains have to take a blind decision about which boat to save first.

The most dangerous part of a search-and-rescue operation is the moment of rescue. As rescuers get near, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to show where you are. ‘If the [passengers] stand up, the boat turns over.’

He usually stops his engines less than a kilometre from the boat waiting to be rescued. His rescue team then goes to the boat in a small dinghy and speaks to the people: ‘To tell them they are safe. To say to them we will rescue them, but that they must stay calm and quiet.’

‘Luckily,’ he says, ‘I have never seen a boat turn over. But it is very dangerous.’

Failure of Triton

In 2014, some European countries argued against Mare Nostrum. On 15 October 2014, Baroness Anelay of St Johns said what the British government think:

‘We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations ... We believe that they encourage more migrants to try to cross the dangerous sea. So they cause more tragic and unnecessary deaths,’ she said.

On Christmas Day 2014 – two months after the Triton started – Frontex said it would end.

‘It is not possible for Operation Triton to work on the migrant challenge alone. It has 2 aircrafts and one helicopter, 2 open-sea patrol vessels, and 4 coastal boats. This is enough to control the EU’s borders. But it is not enough to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean. Triton only gets €2.9 million [$3.1million] a month – this is one third of what Italy was spending on Operation Mare Nostrum.’

In Palermo on 13 March 2015, at a conference about migration called Io Sono Persona (I am a person), the Director of the Italian Department of Civil Liberty and Immigration, Mario Morcone, said:

‘I don’t believe that Mare Nostrum encouraged more migrants to leave … I think it was a big and important humanitarian operation. We cannot push back the people.’

He said that Italy has signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Countries that sign this have to save people who need help at sea.

He said the difference between Mare Nostrum and the Frontex operation, Triton, is : ‘We must do the same thing with smaller ships.’

In 2014, ‘the total number of people saved in the Italian search-and-rescue authority (MRCC Rome) was 166,370,’ the office of Admiral Angrisano, the head of Italy’s coastguard, said.

About 38,000 were saved by the coastguard, 42,000 by international merchant ships and 82,000 by the Italian Navy.

But perhaps it is impossible for one single organization ‘to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean’.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).