Opinion: Mare Nostrum migrant rescue program should be reinstated

The waters of the Mediterranean Sea are fierce waters. Here – when storms come – dark waves can stretch over 25 feet high, swallowing even the hardiest boats.

It is these waters that Abu Mohammad watches as the sun rises above the horizon, pinking the waters and the Turkish town of Side behind him. Thirty-five miles off the shore lie international waters.

And beyond those waters?


Abu himself will never make it there, though not for lack of trying. Since leaving his home in Syria more than a year ago, he has attempted to cross the Mediterranean more than a dozen times. During his last attempt, however, the boat capsized, killing 44 people and leaving Abu adrift.

“I swam for 11.5 hours before I was rescued,” he told the New York Times about the incident. “That’s when I realized I would never make it to Europe. So I decided to stay and help people get there myself.”

Abu Mohammad is a migrant trafficker, aiding the movement of refugees from the Middle East and other regions to the coast of Italy. Once in international waters, boats filled with hundreds of people are often left drifting for the Italian Coast Guard to find and help.

After a 2013 shipwreck filled with refugees, which killed 366 people, the Italian government rallied and strengthened their coast guard and navy in order to help and prevent other migrant shipwrecks.

The name of the project? “Mare Nostrum,” which is Latin for “our sea,” and the ancient Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea.

During its year-long run, Mare Nostrum is credited by the New York Times with “rescuing tens of thousands of lives.” However, last November, the European Unions immigration agency – Frontex – ended the program, saying that migrant traffickers depended on Mare Nostrum to bring the Migrants to shore.

Frontex eliminated the Navy from the program, and now migrants facing danger on the water only have the much less capable and responsive Italian Coast Guard to help them.

These Coast Guard ships are often too far away to reach shipwrecks in time, and if they do, the ships do not possess the size and resources the Navy has in order to properly care for the migrants.

During one such rescue mission on February 9, 29 migrants exposed to the wind and water died aboard Coast Guard rescue ships. “Had they been transported on the large ships of the Mare Nostrum, they would be alive,” said the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, about the incident.

The sheer number of migrant drownings recorded just in the last few months is appalling. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 3,000 migrants have died just this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Last year, a record 220,000 migrants reached European shores, and as the UN reports, for every 20 of those refugees who made it, one drowned.

Despite these statistics, the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean has only increased dramatically, even without the protective Mare Nostrum program.

According to the Interior Ministry, 7,882 migrants made it to the Italian coast during the first two months of this year, compared to 5,506 migrants during the same time period in 2014.

With so many making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, migrant traffickers such as Abu Mohammed have more migrants looking for space on their ships than they can give.

Each migrant packed aboard the large shipping vessels, the small rubber dinghies and the decrepit fishing boats, is desperate for the opportunity of a new life. More than three million Syrians have fled ISIS in what experts call the largest mass migration since the end of World War II.

Most of these refugees have poured into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where the mass influx of people has critically strained resources and finances. Crossing the Mediterranean, though illegal, is their only hope for a future.

Many refugees from the Sub-Saharan region are also making the trip – similarly fleeing starvation and civil war.

“With everything we have seen and been through, we are prepared to sacrifice everything just to get to a better place,” said one refugee speaking with the New York Times.“We are indifferent to safety on the sea because we face a bigger risk of death at home. We just want to get there now.”

Nothing short of an end to war and famine is going to stop these refugees from trying to reach Europe, no matter how dangerous the trip is. The Italian Coast Guard, try as it may, is unprepared to deal with such an overwhelming mass exodus.

It’s time to reinstate Mare Nostrum.