Aid Agency to Launch Controversial Mission to Rescue Trafficked Migrants in Mediterranean

Colin Freeman, Telegraph, April 9, 2015

Médecins Sans Frontières was at the centre of an immigration row on Thursday after announcing plans to launch a controversial new search and rescue service for people-smuggling vessels in the Mediterranean.

The aid agency said it would be operating a 40 metre rescue and medical aid ship that would act a part-replacement for operation Mare Nostrum, the Italian navy’s search and rescue mission that was discontinued in November after European nations said they could not fund its £6m-a-month bill.

At the time, Britain also said it believed that carrying out search and rescue operations was simply encouraging more migrants from Africa to attempt the perilous crossing, which claimed 3,400 lives last year alone.

However, the decision to pull the plug on Mare Nostrum was criticised by MSF and many migrant welfare organisations, and now MSF has decided to launch its own service as a substitute.

“Europe has turned its back on people fleeing some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,” said Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF’s general director. “The decision to close doors and build fences means that men, women and children are forced to risk their lives and take a desperate journey across the sea. Ignoring this situation will not make it go away. Europe has both the resources and the responsibility to prevent more deaths on its doorstep and must act in order to do so.”

The MSF operation will run from May to October, when the volume of trafficking boats across the Mediterranean is expected to reach its peak.

The MSF team will be stationed in the central Mediterranean aboard the MY Phoenix, a 40-metre rescue ship equipped with high speed rigid hull inflatable boats and surveillance drones. It will be working in conjunction with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Malta-based charity that does similar work.

However, the project is likely to run into opposition from anti-immigration groups in both Malta and Italy, who say that search and rescue operations encourage further people trafficking. Both countries have born much of the brunt of the new arrivals, and say that they are struggling to accommodate more.

People traffickers operate their boats in the full knowledge that if they are detected by European coastguard vessels, their passengers will routinely be picked up on humanitarian grounds. The chance of a rescue increases if the boat appears to be in difficulties, thus giving the traffickers an indirect incentive to provide unseaworthy craft that run the risk of sinking.

MSF said it would be working in cooperation with the Italian Coastguard, who would call them if they had news of a boat in distress. The MSF boat is expected to take any rescued migrants to Italy rather than tiny Malta, which is barely the size of the Isle of Wight, and two years ago branded its influx of migrants as “unsustainable”.

Begun in October 2013, Mare Nostrum was launched in response to two mass drownings off the Italian coast that cost around 600 lives. It was a dramatic reversal of the Italian’s government’s previous policy that blocked immigrants at sea and often forced them to return to north Africa. But it coincided with a dramatic increase in the numbers of people being trafficked across the Mediterranean, partly due the collapse of law and order in Libya, the launch country for most trafficking operations.

After a year in which the Italian government plucked more than 100,000 shipwrecked refugees, it was scrapped and replaced by a new project, operation Triton, which is manned and managed by Frontex, the European Union’s external border protection agency. Triton costs less than a third of Mare Nostrum, but its boats only patrol an area within 30 miles of the Italian shore and does not launch pro-active search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

The decision not to replace Mare Nostrum with an equivalent scheme prompted an outcry from human rights groups last autumn, who said it would mean the deaths of more migrants fleeing persecution in the likes of Libya and Syria.

But in a statement setting out British government policy at the time, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, a junior Foreign Office minister, said that search and rescue operations acted as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

She told the House of Lords: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

That stance was explicitly rejected on Wednesday by Mr Hehenkamp. “European governments have chosen to prioritise surveillance and border protection over saving lives,” he said. “Until there is a change in policy, Europe’s collective reluctance to provide safe alternatives for those wishing to reach our shores will continue to cost lives.”

An MSF spokesman also described the pull-factor argument as a “fallacy”.

“Those who rescue do not create the problem,” he said. “An MSF intervention does not lead people to risk their lives at sea. This is already happening and has been happening for years. Ignoring the problem and letting people drown will not make it go away.”

European Union officials fear that this year could see record numbers of migrants attempting to cross into Europe via the Mediterranean. Numbers generally increase during the better weather of the summer months, and only last Sunday, the Italian coastguard picked up 1,500 migrants in a single day.

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