07. Januar 2015 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Frontex über Triton und Flüchtlingsfrachter · Kategorien: Italien, Libyen, Türkei · Tags: , ,


Operation Triton – winter developments

Winter used to bring some respite for those agencies responsible for controlling Europe’s long Mediterranean borders. For each of the last ten years, irregular migration has slowed or even stopped in the run-up to Christmas, with the people smugglers largely confined to port by the rough seas. Not any more, it seems.

Since the launch on November 1st of Operation Triton, the Frontex-coordinated mission in the central Mediterranean, some 11,400 migrants have been rescued, about 10,000 of them in situations characterised as “distressed,” in 77 separate Search and Rescue incidents at sea. Although significantly smaller than the number recorded during the August peak – when some 28,000 migrants were detected on this route – this level of traffic is still unprecedented for wintertime. 2014 could be remembered as the year that people-smuggling by sea truly became a year-round business.

In a rapid adaptation of strategy that has become their hallmark, the smugglers have started using much larger boats. These are typically decommissioned freighters, up to 75m long, procured in the ports of south-eastern Turkey, notably Mersin: a departure point still connected by ferry to the Syrian port of Latakia, making it reachable for the tens of thousands of Syrians still fleeing the conflict in their country. The freighters, repaired and manned by crews sometimes hired from as far away as Russia, are piloted via Cyprus and Crete towards Italy, which remains the EU destination of choice for refugees from the Middle East.

“Scrap vessels are expensive and difficult to procure, but high demand makes this method profitable,” says Antonio Saccone, Head of Operational Analysis at Frontex. “It shows how powerful and sophisticated the smuggling networks have become. There is no doubt that the Mediterranean coasts are now in serious crisis.”

Syrian refugees are generally richer than Asian or sub-Saharan migrants, and are charged €6,000 each for the service in order to reach Mersin. This cost is often on top of the ‘fees’ they must pay to the militias controlling the border crossings on exit from Syria – often as much as 16g of gold per person. With freighters frequently filled with as many as 600 people, the profit for the smugglers runs into the millions.

A place on a freighter from Turkey costs at least three times the price of a ticket on the usual sea route from Libya. And yet the migrants are willing to pay. Travelling this way not only circumvents the considerable danger of capsizing in a small boat in rough seas: it also avoids having to go to Libya. The departure point of choice for facilitator networks in 2014, this increasingly lawless North African nation appears to have become too dangerous an operating environment even for the criminal gangs. Libya’s neighbours, furthermore, have beefed up their border security to contain the spread of Islamic extremists, which has made it much harder for migrants trying to enter by land.

For all its advantages, though, the new route from Turkey is not without dangers. The engines of the old ships are often highly unreliable. In the last six weeks alone, one freighter has been found drifting near Cyprus; another was rescued 30 miles off Crete; still others, off the Italian coast. The danger of shipwreck is greatly increased by the smugglers’ habit of switching off the freighter’s AIS (the Automatic Identification System with which all boats over 300 tonnes, as well as all passenger ships, are equipped). The effect is to make the boat electronically invisible to the Italian search and rescue authorities – a stratagem that buys time for the smuggling crew to escape by fast launch and thus avoid arrest.

Frontex has discerned another worrying recent trend: some 30% of all migrants rescued at sea in September and October were picked up by civilian shipping – the vast majority of them, 52 incidents, off the coast of Libya. The smugglers have learned to time the departure of migrant boats so that they cross the paths of merchant ships heading for the EU. When a distress call is transmitted, the merchant ship, being the nearest, is obliged by international maritime law to go to the rescue – and then disembarks them at the next port of call.

The risk to life when transferring migrants between ships at sea is significant; and the merchant marine is of course far from happy. Operation Triton, however, cannot be expected to handle the migrant challenge alone. It has two aircraft and a helicopter at its disposal, two open sea patrol vessels, and four coastal ones: a fleet appropriate to its mandate, which is to control the EU’s borders, not to

police 2.5million square kilometres of the Mediterranean. Triton’s budget, at €2.9m a month, is one third of what Italy were spending on Operation Mare Nostrum. That said, saving lives is always a priority for Frontex. “There is great suffering out there, among a great many vulnerable people,” says Gil Arias Fernandez, Frontex Executive Director “so of course we do whatever we can.” Christmas, it is safe to predict, will be no holiday for the border guards engaged in the central Mediterranean.

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