EU’s 14-day police operation confirms Mare Nostrum’s necessity

‘Mos Maiorum’ saw over 20,000 police officers staking out border crossings, railway stations, bus depots, and highways throughout Europe, effecting a total of 19,234 arrests of undocumented migrants.

The EU’s border agency Frontex described a 14-day operation between EU law enforcement agencies as a success, after thousands of arrests of undocumented migrants and overstayers at EU points of entry and shared borders offered an insight into human trafficking trends.

‘Mos Maiorum’ saw over 20,000 police officers staking out border crossings, railway stations, bus depots, and highways throughout Europe, effecting a total of 19,234 arrests of undocumented migrants.

In Malta, 35 were made; the larger share, 5,954, occurred in Italy by its navy at sea. Over 14,300 were men, while 2,721 were minors and 2,116 were women. The most common nationals, over 5,000, were Syrians fleeing the civil war, followed by Afghans (1,466), Kosovar Serbians (1,227), Eritreans and Somalis.

The operation, the brainchild of the Italian presidency of the European Council, captured the attention of the mass media and NGOs that said the operation was targeting migrants with an intention to deport them.

“Its aims were to target the criminal networks that facilitate irregular migration and to monitor the most used routes followed by them,” Frontex said.

The analysis of the operation’s findings and arrests has perhaps only determined the obvious: that the end of Italy’s naval mission Mare Nostrum prompted a disproportionate increase of irregular migration in the central Mediterranean in 2014. Over 86% of migrants in the region were rescued by Italian naval assets.

This trend increased rapidly during the second and third quarters of 2014. By the end of October more than 150,000 irregular migrants were reported in the region targeting Italy. The figures for the whole region are about five times higher than in the same period of 2013, including detections by Malta for which Operation MN caused a reduction in the number of irregular migrants arriving on the island – about 659 arrivals during 2014 compared to the 2,090 arrivals reported during 2013 – which is roughly 60% fewer than last year.

“In 2014, Libya has clearly become the main departure point to the EU for tens of thousands of irregular migrants mainly from Syria, Eritrea, Mali, Nigeria, Gambia and many other sub-Saharan, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. All together more than 53 different nationalities have been identified,” Frontex said.

Last year, Italian Navy ships patrolled close to the Libyan coast to help migrant boats, but the Italian patrols were replaced a few months ago by the EU’s Operation Triton, whose mandate is to venture no farther than 30 miles from the Italian coast. Meanwhile, the number of boat people continues to soar, up 43% in the first two months of 2015 compared with a year earlier.

But the EU agency said Operation Mare Nostrum, patrolling closer to the Libyan coast with the aim of preventing the loss of migrants’ lives, had been exploited by smugglers in Libya pushing an increasing number of migrants to depart in unseaworthy vessels.

The EU’s limited patrols means that coast guard authorities are likely to call on mercantile vessels more often. “We have become part of a rent-a-vessel programme because countries can’t get their act together,” Luca Sisto, a senior official at the Italian shipping lobby Confitarma, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

“The reception of Syrian migrants at the Libyan border in Ghadames is well-organised: trucks are already standing by to carry them to Zuwarah. As the border is closed, they cross the border on foot, although the border guards are easily bribed, some migrants claim,” Frontex said.

A similar pattern was described by Eritrean migrants who mentioned that the trilateral border of Libya-Egypt-Sudan is a common rally point where Sudanese facilitators hand over migrants to their Libyan counterparts. “The facilitation of Eritrean nationals appears to be very well-organised from their country of origin to EU destination countries. Several migrants mentioned that the facilitators operating in Catania and Milan are linked to the networks in Libya, Turkey or Egypt.”

In many cases migrants have to stay in safe houses for certain periods of time, which can vary from a few days to a few weeks. The reason why migrants have to wait is to give facilitators the time to gather enough migrants together as they intend to use the boats to more than their full capacity by overloading them, in this way maximising the financial gain. 

Syrians push up arrivals

In 2014, there has been a sharp increase in irregular migration from Egypt to Italy across the Central Mediterranean from 8,433 to 14,405 irregular migrants. 

“Most of the migrants along this route are Syrian and Egyptian and these Egyptians often claim to be Syrian in order not to be repatriated to Egypt and to be able to obtain asylum. The main final destinations of these migrants were Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands,” Frontex said.

“Libya has been plagued by instability since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, this instability is affecting the number of migrants’ boats departing from Libya. At the moment, different factions, militias and high ranked officials are taking advantage of irregular migration. There is no central authority to implement effective measures to control migratory flows in Libya and it is unlikely that one will be formed in the short-term.”