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Our Seas: End of Mare Nostrum Spells Death in the Mediterranean

Mare Nostrum is Latin for “our sea.”

Out of 105 people recovered by the Italian Coast Guard floating in a collapsible boat between Libya and the island of Lampedusa amidst frigid conditions and a raging storm on Monday 9 February 2015, 7 were already dead. Later, another 29, all boys and young men, died of hypothermia during the long trip to safety on the deck of two open air vessels. “We don’t know at the moment if there will be more bodies,” explained Pietro Bartolo, Lampedusa’s Health Director. “We hope the death toll stops here. I don’t want to see a repeat of the carnage of 3 October 2013.”

As quoted in Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, Bartolo continues,”I am devastated by this umpteenth tragedy, this latest nightmare that could have been avoided with Mare Nostrum; if they are going to rescue migrants 100-120 miles from Lampedusa, it is not possible to then carry them towards Sicily in prohibitive weather conditions. [Mare Nostrum] allowed Navy ships to reach the desperate, take them on board and give them food and shelter. But now it’s more difficult.”[1] According to Reuters, the people rescued today were forced to spend another 18 hours on the open decks of two patrol boats after having been found in an inflatable raft at sea. Waves were reported to be 8-9 metres high, with force 7-8 winds out of the northwest.[2]

Mare Nostrum, Latin for “our sea,” was the ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean. It was also the name of the military and humanitarian cooperative operation instituted in the wake of the 2013 tragedy Bartolo is referring to, when 155 persons barely survived a shipwreck that left 360 of their companions dead. Another 34 died one week later as the result of a second wreck. In the first instance, over 500 people were crammed onto a 20 metre fishing boat that left the Libyan port of Misrata. Most were from Eritrea. The second boat’s occupants were mainly Syrian.

But on 1 November 2014, the European Commission commenced Triton, “European border management” agency Frontex’s new operation, and shut down Mare Nostrum, which was fully decommissioned in January 2015. Triton is pledged not to operate beyond 30 nautical miles of shore. What’s more, as opposed to placing the Italian navy at the disposal of Mare Nostrum, Triton only employs “two high seas vessels, two ships, four patrol boats, two planes and a helicopter.”[3]

In a bitter indictment of Triton, Lampedusa’s mayor Giusi Nicolini decried the situation, standing before the lifeless bodies laid out on plastic sheets. “Here we are, once again, in front of another tragedy, weeping for children who died in search of a future…. Everyone has been saying that Mare Nostrum increased the amount of arrivals. Maybe so. But at least they arrived alive. Now they’re coming dead. Triton, as Mare Nostrum’s substitute, is not a humanitarian but only a border protection operation. It serves no purpose: it neither saves lives nor even raises any alerts. It was these poor migrants who sent out the SOS. And what happened to them is the perfect example of what will happen who knows how many more times in the future.”[4]

Elsewhere in Italy, many had been complaining of the burden Mare Nostrum placed on Italy. The Economist calculated the operation’s cost at as much as 9.5 million euros a month. But efforts to share the expense with the rest of Europe at the EU Summit were unsuccessful in 2014, a year in which one weekend saw 5,000 people rescued at sea.[5]

But Mare Nostrum may not have been the panacea many politicians and humanitarian groups made it out to be. Antonio Mazzeo of Lampedusan civic organisation Askavusa states: “I continually do not understand nor share in the ‘regrets’ nor the praise of Mare Nostrum expressed by NGOs, human rights associations, or social organisations.” In an interview with journalist Alessia Capasso, Mazzeo goes on to say, “With Mare Nostrum’s aereonautically powerless plan, the government aimed at preventing as many departures as possible from the coasts of Africa by projecting national boundaries as far South as possible (witness the use of Italian drones up to the borders ofLibya, Chad and Sudan), legitimising the role of the Armed Forces in terms of public order and containment of the ‘immigration menace.'”[6]

According to Giacomo Sferlazzo, artist and also activist with Askavusa, migrant detention is a profit centre. “We believe that Europe benefits from operating migrant centres, places that profit off the backs of these people and the inhabitants of the places where they are being set up. We believe that the management of migration, as we know it, ensures undocumented, exploitable, extortable and underpaid labour. Millions and millions of euros have been spent over the past 20 years to militarise borders and penalise migrants who, in the best of cases, find themselves in a situation of assistance entrapment that offers them not a shred of dignity or self-determination.” Sferlazzo mentions that the military is in fact the overwhelming presence on the island, not the migrants, and correlates the presence of 7 radar installations on the island with substantially increased rates of cancer among Lampedusa’s inhabitants.[7]

The aptly named organisation Welcome to Europe (w2eu) suggests a workable alternative to save the lives of people fleeing war and conflict. Reminding the world of its humanitarian obligation to provide assistance to people fleeing war and conflict, in their own translation they offer the following solution on their website:

“The closest safe port would be Malta. It would be very easy to welcome the refugees there. It would be simple to give them a laissez-passer to find their way to another safe place in Europe – a simple way to share the responsibility. Europe should welcome them with all their skills and stories they carry, a simple and the only answer to the tragedies [brought] by wars and economical disasters often enough caused also by the economic interests of the European governments.”[8]


[1] Author’s translation
[4] Author’s translation

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