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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Aid agency launches mission to rescue trafficked migrants in Mediterranean

Some 50,000 migrants have landed in Italy since 2014 after they were rescued Credit: Massimo Sestini/Polaris
Some 50,000 migrants have landed in Italy since 2014 after they were rescued Credit: Massimo Sestini/Polaris

Colin Freeman

Doctors Without Borders is at the centre of an immigration row after announcing plans to launch a controversial new search and rescue service for people-smuggling vessels in the Mediterranean.

The aid agency, known international as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 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 €8 million-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.

Read More: 'They were swallowed by the waves'

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.”

Read More: Italy wants North African countries to rescue migrants at sea

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.

Read More: Italy warning of Isil blitz on Europe

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, who, two years ago, branded its influx of migrants as "unsustainable".   

Read More: 300 migrants feared lost in Mediterranean refugee tragedy

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.

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.

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