The European Union border agency Frontex on Saturday launched an operation in the Mediterranean Sea in the face of mass attempts by migrants to cross to Europe by boat on often dangerous sea voyages.
The mission, called Triton, is to focus on border control, only carrying out search-and-rescue operations if necessary. Initially employing five aircraft and seven vessels, it is to patrol a zone stretching just 30 nautical miles off Europe's coast at an estimated cost of 2.9 million euros (3.6 million dollars) a month.
The limited radius of Triton diffentiates it from Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, which ended on Friday. Mare Nostrum sent patrols close to the Libyan coast, rescuing over 100,000 people attempting the often risky sea voyage to Europe over the past year.
Critics of the operation argued that such patrols encouraged migrants to set out to sea. Human rights groups, however, fear that its cessation could put lives in danger.
Rome has long urged the EU to do more to help cope with the migrant problem, partly in light of the political unpopularity of Mare Nostrum, which cost Italian taxpayers 9.5 million euros a month amid a severe recession.
Italy will, however, still be spending about 3.5 million euros a month to keep a third of its sea fleet in readiness alongside the Frontex operation for the next two months, with the EU saying that Triton is not replacing Italy's obligation to rescue ships in distress.
"Italy will have to continue making continued substantial efforts using national means, fully coordinated with the Frontex operation, in order to manage the situation at the external borders," the European Commission said.
Italy insists that migrant lives are not being put at risk by changing to the less ambitious EU operation. Since 2000, some 22,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Many of the migrants are from Syria and Eritrea, with others coming from Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories and Somalia.
Triton, which is supported by 21 European countries, replaces two other Frontex operations, Hermes and Aeneas. Any migrants it does rescue will initially be brought to Italy and Malta.
tj/pfd (AP, dpa)