Dear Blog Readers— I am back on Lampedusa – that little slip of an Island that is a closer to Africa than to Italy – the destination for tens of thousands of migrants every year. (See Blog Post: Lampedusa: Europe’s Port).
This time I am back for a story on the beginning of Operation Triton, a joint European effort to patrol the Mediterranean waters around Italy and save migrant ships in distress at sea. This operation is taking over from Mare Nostrum, the Italian operation which was launched in October 2013, shortly after a migrant ship sunk off the coast of Lampedusa leaving over 300 people dead. (see Blog post: Into the Deep Blue Cemetery off Lampedusa).
Mare Nostrum was a massive effort by the Italian Navy to rescue all boats coming from North Africa. It cost Italy 9.5 million euros a month and involved five navy ships and five planes. Over the course of a year (from October 2013 to October 2014) they made 558 rescues and saved 100,250 people. During that period 499 migrants died at sea, 1,446 disappeared and they have been unable to identify 192 cadavers. They also arrested 728 traffickers.
Over the past year, Italy has pushed hard to get Europe to step up and take over the operation of patrolling the coast. Europe moved slowly, as usual, and Italy quickly developed a policy of letting the migrants move through Italy without being finger-printed so they could claim refugee status in other countries.
To see Operation Triton in action, the group of journalists from Italy, France, Germany, Britain and the US gathered in the port early and were taken in groups of four on a Dutch patrol boat out to the Portuguese open sea patrol vessel.
As we flew across the rough sea sometimes the nose of the boat seemed like it was going straight up in the air and just as I thought we would flip over backwards, we came crashing back down in the trough before riding up on the next wave. It was slightly unnerving but I figured the Dutch sailors knew what they were doing. Emma, a British correspondent for The Guardian, told me she had taken some heavy-duty seasickness pill and I was wondering if I should have too as we charged along flying over the tops of the waves and then came plummeting back down.
When we pulled up alongside the Portuguese ship, the Viana Do Castelo, they lowered a rope ladder, which looked easy enough to climb, but with both boats bouncing up and down on the sea it was a challenge. We all grasped and struggled our way up as the sailors on top reached down to pull us in. Over the course of the day, we had a fascinating look at how their operations work.
Unlike the Italian “Mare Nostrum”, Operation Triton is patrolling a much smaller area – only the 30 nautical miles off the south of Italy’s coast. Nineteen EU countries are now contributing to the operation and the total cost is 2.9 million euro per month, only a one-third of the cost of the Italian operation.
We interviewed Veronica Sousa, a nurse aboard the ship who told us they were prepared for many eventualities including delivering babies (many migrant women arrive pregnant and some have delivered babies aboard rescue vessels), helping children, dealing with severely dehydrated passengers. She also explained that they have “sanitary kits” for dealing with migrants that might have infectious diseases such as Ebola. The Triton operation has three large ships and two patrol boats, 2 planes and one helicopter involved in surveillance operations. As we stood on the deck of the Viana Do Castelo, a Finnish surveillance plane roared past overhead heading out to sea to try to spot migrant ships.
Back at the airport in Lampedusa, I had a chance to speak to the Finnish pilot Captain Lauri Pakkala of the Finnish Border Guard who explained, they must fly high above the water, never letting the migrants ships see them. If the migrants on board a ship realize they have been spotted by rescuers, they “might resort to activities that might be dangerous to themselves such as throwing away life jackets or things like that. They might assume that as soon as they are spotted that they will be rescued quite quickly which might not always be the case.”
During my time on the ship and on shore, I had a chance to talk at length with Izabella Cooper, the spokeswoman for Frontex, the European Agency which oversees joint border control operations. She has been following the migrant crossings of the Mediterranean for years. Frontex has teams of de-briefers who speak to the migrants and ask them to volunteer information about the traffickers. According to Frontex, which has been collecting data for the past seven years, 2014 has had the most migrants with 140,000 arriving on the coasts of Italy from Libya.
Izabella told me ““Libya is a de facto failed state without functioning law enforcement authorities, which creates a bonanza for the smuggling networks to operate. The smugglers run what we can easily define as a zero-risk, high-profit activity. They can make up to one million Euros on a boat with up to 450 people on board.”
She explained that they have noted a significant increase in brutality and violence on the part of the traffickers. Apparently some of the migrants arrive at the shore in Libya, see the boat they are supposed to travel on and realize the risk. If they try to turn back, the traffickers violently force them on board.
According to Izabella, “if the smugglers see any indication or lack of subordination they react with violence….We are finding there are incidences of stabbings on board and migrants being thrown overboard. They are now even using electric tasers to shock people to keep them calm if they think they are getting agitated.”
Izabella also explained they have discovered a heavy dose of racism in the trafficker’s behavior, “We have indications that black Africans are put below deck and locked in the hold so they can’t get out. For several days they are forced to breathe the engine fumes. If there is an accident, there is no way for them to escape.”
Back on Lampedusa, my AP Television VJ colleague Paolo Santalucia and I rented an ATV (a four-wheel all terrain vehicle), to buzz around the island talking to the people about how they saw the situation. We filmed the boat graveyard at the edge of the port where over the years the rotting migrant boats have piled up. We went to the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island) –see panoramic photo above_- to see the place where the 366 migrants died last year. We visited the Holding center on the island, which is now being refurbished, but a year ago was packed with hundreds of migrants. I was fascinated by the writing on the walls in the women’s dormitory – their names, a dove, a cross, and several women had written “I love you” and the name of a man.
In the port, we found a couple of fisherman repairing their nets because the sea was too rough to go out. We chatted with them for a while to get their thoughts on the migrant situation – and I couldn’t help thinking how much they reminded me of fishermen I have seen repairing nets in Gloucester, Massachusetts, or Portland, Maine.
Pasquale Palmisano looked up from his work, put a hand on his heart and said in gruff tone, “Mare Nostrum or whatever other name you want to call it, does not change anything at all for us. They must go look for them (migrants) over there, on the other side, on the other shore, it is useless that they leave them in the middle of the sea, the accidents will always happen.”
The fisherman of Lampedusa know a thing or two about rescuing migrants, over the years they have rescued many themselves, pulling drowning migrants onto their boats and carrying them to shore. It was a fisherman who first found the migrants off Rabbit Island.
After that sinking, I interviewed Tadese Fisaha, a 29-year-old survivor from Eritrea. With tears in his eyes, he told me that when the ship sank, although he did not know how to swim, he managed to tread water for three hours as his family members and friends died around him. Finally a fisherman arrived and pulled him out of the water.
For the moment, there are many less migrants arriving. The weather has been bad and the sea is rough, but on Lampedusa the residents wonder what will happen come spring when the weather is warm and the sea is calm.
There is something about Lampedusa that seems like a frontier town, an outpost. The main street – Via Roma – is a wide deserted avenue with a line of shops and bars that reminds me of a far west ghost town.
Stray dogs wander about like they own the place. Lampedusa residents buzz around on mopeds without bothering with helmets. For the moment everything is tranquil but I have a feeling I will be back to cover the migrant story again.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.