Newspaper article International New York Times

Loss of Migrant Patrols Now Haunts E.U. ; Price Tag Forced Italy to Abandon Rescue Effort, along with Its Successes

Newspaper article International New York Times

Loss of Migrant Patrols Now Haunts E.U. ; Price Tag Forced Italy to Abandon Rescue Effort, along with Its Successes

Article excerpt

Ending Mare Nostrum, largely for budget reasons, had effects beyond scaling back humanitarian efforts.

To human rights advocates, one of Europe's biggest mistakes in the Mediterranean migration crisis came last November with the shutdown of the Italian patrol-and-rescue program known as Mare Nostrum. Led by the Italian Navy, Mare Nostrum saved thousands of migrants at sea.

But ending the program, largely for budget reasons, had effects beyond scaling back humanitarian efforts. Even as the Italians were saving lives, they were using it to identify and prosecute the smuggling networks behind the surge in human trafficking across the Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum helped Italian prosecutors convict more than 100 people for human smuggling and also indict three smuggling bosses in Egypt.

Italian ships patrolled international waters -- making it possible to capture some smugglers in the act -- while police investigators were stationed onboard.

"Police were able to intervene directly," said Giovanni Salvi, the chief prosecutor in Catania. "They could immediately identify the telephones that were being used, the numbers and the traffickers. We could get wiretaps. That allowed us to record conversations between the 'mother ship' and the bosses in Egypt."

The program that replaced Mare Nostrum, known as Triton and run by the European Union, was far less ambitious, restricted to the waters immediately off the European coast and not including a robust law enforcement component. The decision by European leaders not to pick up the 9 million euro-a-month bill to keep Mare Nostrum operating has drawn scathing criticism in the aftermath of last weekend's deadly shipwreck, which left more than 750 migrants dead.

European leaders this past week effectively conceded their mistake and pledged to triple funding for search-and-rescue missions while also dedicating new resources to fighting the smuggling rings. But as the flow of migrants continues unabated, the new European response is being criticized as shortsighted and still lacking the scope of Mare Nostrum, which itself was never intended as a comprehensive solution. And Europe continues to struggle with how to allocate money and personnel between saving lives on the sea, prosecuting human smugglers and dealing with the causes of the migrant surge closer to their source in poor and violent regions of the Middle East and Africa.

Many analysts, as well as United Nations officials, say Europe needs a more holistic response, including overhauling its asylum system and expanding channels of legal immigration, because the problem of illegal migration is only going to worsen.

"There was a lot of expectations from the public that the European Union wasn't going to give just a short-term response but a medium- and long-term vision," said Thomas Huddleston, an analyst with the Migration Policy Group in Brussels. "We didn't get that."

He added: "The real question is, 'What is the goal of this response?"'

In Sicily, where the brunt of the migration crisis is being felt, smuggler boats have continued to arrive, day and night. On Friday, Mr. Salvi heard testimony in a closed hearing against the Tunisian man accused of piloting the boat that capsized in the fatal shipwreck, as well as a Syrian man allegedly working as an accomplice.

Mr. Salvi's office, if more accustomed to pursuing cases against the Sicilian mafia, now has a special team of prosecutors, working with the Italian police, to confront the smugglers. Mare Nostrum was hardly a cure-all, Mr. Salvi noted, but it provided investigators with the advantage of scope and immediacy. On at least five occasions, Mare Nostrum ships working in international waters seized so-called mother ships -- the large vessels that carry out migrants before transferring them to smaller boats in international waters.

Meanwhile, police investigations could begin aboard rescue ships, as officers began questioning migrants, and identifying smugglers, as soon as people were rescued. …

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