The new EU refugee operation "Triton" has been operational in the southern Mediterranean for the last few days. Its task is to rescue refugees, but will the EU intervene after Italy's mission is over?
After five days of storms, the sea between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa has calmed. For the past week, the Portuguese boat "Viana do Castello" has been patrolling a region 30 nautical miles south of the island. Captain Jorge Miguel Morais Chumbo and his crew of 40 are in search of boats carrying refugees in trouble. "Up until now we haven't had to do anything," he says. "I think the situation is still calm because of the bad weather."
Using a number of large radar screens, he keeps tabs on all the cargo ships, fishing boats and suspicious objects. The fact that he hasn't found any refugee boats yet could be down to the enormous storm, which even put his warship in difficulties and may have destroyed the wooden boats used by the human traffickers. The Portuguese ship, commissioned by the European Unions border security agency Frontex, has already rescued hundreds of refugees from rickety vessels. They are brought into Italian ports and handed over to the authorities.
The most important part of the operation is not the ships but the two coastguard airplanes that fly from Lampedusa and Malta to monitor the huge area up to Libya. One of these aircraft, equipped with highly-sensitive radar and cameras, is from Finland. Normally, its pilot Lauri Pakkala scans the Baltic Sea for oil slicks and environmental damage. Now he goes in search of people with special reconnaissance officers. "Normally the boats in this area are full of refugees," he says. "You always see them straight away, because the whole deck is full of people. Fishing boats only have fishing equipment." Lauri Pakkala reports his sightings to the Italian coastguard's base in Rome, which sees which ships are nearby and decides who should be sent to rescue them. Captain Morais Chumbo also gets his orders from Rome.
'Triton' will only help Italy
Parallel to the European "Triton" operation, Italy still runs its own rescue mission, known as "Mare Nostrum," further out in international waters. But the Italian government wants to let this mission expire because of the cost.
Meanwhile, Triton's two planes, a helicopter, and six ships will not be able to match what the Italian navy has been doing for the past year. Italy has now fished over 100,000 refugees out of the Mediterranean in the past year.
Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper, speaking in the Lampedusa port, makes clear that Triton is only an auxiliary operation. "It is not Frontex's role to replace the border controls of Italy or any other state," she says. "We only supply additional technical equipment or personnel for particularly affected countries, so that they can control their borders," she says. Triton will also remain under Italian command and Italy must continue to organize the rescue operations in its waters. "There are international laws which oblige countries to rescue people in their waters," she said.
The worst year
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere says that the EU's organized sea rescue is encouraging more refugees to brave the highly dangerous journey. Many officers on board the "Viana do Castelo" don't think so. No one knows how many refugees would come without Mare Nostrum or Triton.
"2014 was a dramatic years," said Cooper. "There have never been so many refugees, dead people, or indeed rescuees." That is mainly down to the dramatic situation in Syria, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. "The situation is very difficult. A very clear factor is the situation in Libya. That is a failed state, where there is no police or judiciary to stop the traffickers and smugglers."
Throwing equipment overboard
After five hours in the air, Pakkala has returned to the small airfield on Lampedusa. He says that he tries not to fly too close to the refugee boats. "Sometimes the refugees do dangerous things that risk their lives," he says. "They throw their equipment or their navigation instruments overboard. They think they'll be rescued more quickly."
As soon as they see a plane, the people do all they can to be rescued. Some smugglers even ram smaller boats or put a hole in the hull - even though it could take hours for a ship with the necessary equipment to reach them.
Frontex searches for traffickers
As soon as the refugees are brought on board the "Viana do Castelo," they are given medical attention. But Frontex also has special investigators who questions those coming off the overcrowded boats. Border control officers like Nunu Palheira want to know how the refugees made it onto the boats - who they paid and which of them could be human traffickers. Often they are the ones who were steering the vessel. "We can often identify them," says Palheira. "It's not easy, especially if they have the same nationality as the refugees. If there's an Albanian in a boat full of Syrians, it's easy, but otherwise we need more time to analyze the hierarchy and the behavior in the group to work out who is in charge." Dozens of traffickers have already been arrested this way.
But that doesn't usually deter the groups in Libya. The business is just too good, says Cooper. "The smugglers in Libya are doing lucrative business without any risk. They can earn a million euros [$1.2 million] with one boat." Since there are no state structures or criminal investigations in Libya, it is very difficult to prevent, the EU often complains.
Now the winter has started, there are usually fewer desperate refugees, who pay thousands of euros for the dangerous journey. The weather is too bad, but Italian navy officers fear that the chance of rescue might take away that concern. "We just hope that the smugglers don't send people out on boats that can't withstand the rough weather," said Cooper.