The last time “Mare Nostrum” (Latin for “Our Sea”) was used as a political slogan in Italy, Mussolini’s fascists were claiming dominance over the entire Mediterranean. This time it’s different. It’s the name of the operation the Italian navy is running to save asylum seekers from drowning on the dangerous voyage in open boats from North Africa to Italy.
In a seaworthy vessel with a working engine and a reliable compass, it’s a 10-hour crossing and not very dangerous. In a leaky, massively overcrowded wreck that was scavenged somewhere along the North African coast by the people smugglers and sent off to Italy after a few rudimentary repairs, it can be a death sentence. An estimated 20,000 people went down with their boats before reaching Italy in the past 10 years.
The most recent victims, on Saturday, barely made it one km off the Libyan coast before their boat sank, leaving 170 people in the water. The Italian navy does not operate in Libyan territorial waters, and the Libyan coast guard station near Qarabouli, east of Tripoli, has no ships of its own. The coast guards borrowed a couple of fishing boats, but only 16 people were still alive by the time they got there.
The boats usually founder in international waters, however, and then it’s the Italian navy’s job. Operation Mare Nostrum began in October 2013, and since then over 80,000 people have been pulled from these seagoing death traps (though most were not actually sinking at the time) and safely landed in Italy. Last weekend, the Italian navy rescued almost 4,000 more.
This policy honours Italy’s humanitarian traditions — but since all the people who are saved claim political asylum on coming ashore, setting in motion a legal process that can last for years, the Italian navy is actually increasing Italy’s problem as the first port of call for over half the undocumented immigrants entering the European Union.
Most of them have a good case for claiming asylum: a large majority of the people reaching Italy are refugees from war and tyranny in Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia, with smaller number from various West African countries. Nor do they really want to stay in Italy, which is going through a prolonged economic crisis and has very high unemployment. They would rather move on to more prosperous EU countries further north.
But international law says that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe haven they reach, and in the case of the EU that is almost bound to be Italy, because it is so near to Africa and because the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya means that there is no control over boats leaving the Libyan coast.
Italy is now getting more than half of the EU’s entire refugee flow — probably well over 100,000 this year — and all of those people must stay in Italy. It’s expensive, it’s politically poisonous, and the country’s facilities for looking after these refugees are being overwhelmed. Yet Italy’s EU partners seem quite content to leave Italy to bear the burden all by itself.
With almost all of the Fertile Crescent now in a state of war, and new flows of refugees starting as a result of the fighting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the numbers are going up fast. Five Italian warships are dedicated full-time to Operation Mare Nostrum, and on many occasions in the past few months they have picked up more than a thousand people in one day. This situation cannot last.
Italy has made no threats to stop the rescues and let the refugees drown. “We do not want a sea of death,” said Rear-Admiral Michele Saponaro, who runs the operation from the naval command centre.
But Rome is losing patience with its do-nothing EU “partners” and there is another way to address Italy’s problem.
The Schengen Treaty does not include Britain and Ireland, which opted out, and four new EU members have not yet complied with its terms — but 22 of the EU’s 28 members allow free movement across their borders for legal residents of all the Schengen countries. This includes Italy, of course. So, in theory, if Italy just gives the asylum seekers an ID card and a document saying they have permanent residence, then they’ll leave for greener pastures.
“We’ll just let them go,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano last May. “We want to clearly say to the EU that they either patrol the Mediterranean border with us or we will send all those who ask for asylum in Italy where they really want to go: that is, the rest of Europe, because they don’t want to stay in Italy.”
A previous Italian government briefly made the same threat back in 2011 and then the rift was papered over. But Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s new government seems to mean business. Italy not only wants its partners to contribute money and ships to Operation Mare Nostrum; it also wants them to share the job of looking after the refugees and not leave them all in Italy.
The EU is famously bad at making hard choices, but it’s finally going to have to face up to this one.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.