Frontex Plus to bolster border protection, replacing Mare Nostrum

Mare Nostrum to be replaced by Frontex Plus, says Italian minister for the interior Angelo Alfano

Cecilia Malmström, EU home affairs commissioner
Cecilia Malmström, EU home affairs commissioner

Italy's Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation will be replaced by an expanded version of European Union border control agency Frontex, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Wednesday after meeting with EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.

"Mare Nostrum will be replaced by Frontex Plus, which will merge and expand existing operations," the minister said. "Human traffickers' vessels will be destroyed so they can't be reused," Alfano added.

Italy set up Mare Nostrum in October 2013 after 400 people perished in two migrant boat disasters off the coast of Sicily. The operation costs €9 million a month, taking up the bulk of the Navy's budget. Italy has been calling for the EU to step in to shoulder some of the burden.

Europe has rewarded Italy's efforts to save the lives of migrants at sea, Alfano added. "Frontex Plus has been green-lit, and it will substitute Mare Nostrum," Alfano said. "This is an important day for Europe and for Italy".

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom thanked Italy for its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation. "On behalf of Europe, I thank Italy for its immense effort," she said. "You have saved tens of thousands of human lives. Italy must no longer shoulder this burden alone".

The Wall Street Journal said that the EU will extend border-protection operations and is calling on member countries to provide boats, helicopters and offer more places for refugees.

The move comes as the bloc's southern flank continues to be a popular destination for traffickers trying to get refugees and asylum seekers into Europe from North Africa.

Earlier this week, the Italian navy recovered 24 bodies from an overturned fishing boat filled with would-be refugees fleeing Libya for Europe. There were also 364 survivors from the stricken boat that had been headed toward Sicily.

Mare Nostrum, which has been dealing with the situation until now, is a search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea, run by the Italian Navy. It's been credited with saving thousands of migrants' lives, as people attempt the perilous journey from Libya's shores to Italy, usually on unseaworthy fishing boats.

The EU's border protection operations are coordinated across member states by an agency called Frontex. Two Frontex operations underway in Italy, called Hermes and Aeneas, will be upgraded to Frontex Plus and in place by the end of November, with increased resources from all 28 EU members.

More than 100,000 people have arrived in Italy so far this year, reflecting increasing instability in Libya, where human smugglers operate, compared with 42,000 for the whole of last year. "It has been clear this is an effort Italy cannot carry out all alone," Malmstrom added.