With 8,000 kilometers of shoreline and approximately 500,000 square kilometers of territorial waters surrounding it, Italy is one of the Mediterranean’s most exposed countries.
A single organization of 11,000 individuals is responsible for patrolling the entirety of these waters along with the international waters surrounding it: the Guardia Costiera, the Italian Coast Guard.
Captain Paolo Cafaro joined the Italian CoastGuard as a noncommissioned officer in 1985. Eventually, he became a pilot, a captain and went on to supervise all sea patrol operations for the Guardia Costiera from 2011 to 2015. Today, he’s the commander of the “Aringhieri”airbase in Sarzana, Italy.
“We know before everything that our main commitment is to save people. We are too few, but everybody, every single sailor, every petty officer, every officer can be employed in all these fields. We do not have any specific units or any specific branch of our organization devoted to search and rescue. It’s the link between all our activities: every single action, every single activity has todo with the protection of human life”.
Though what is commonly referred to as the European migrant crisis only began in 2015after the collapse of the Libyan government coincided with the worsening of theSyrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Italian coastguard has been involved in the search and rescue operations of migrant ships since the late 1980s.
In October 2013, after two shipwrecks had claimed the lives of 500 migrants, Italy launched a new search and rescue operation on a massive scale: Mare Nostrum. Despite high unemployment, an economic crisis, and its requests for support fromEuropean member States, Italy devoted 9 million euros monthly to the operation and over the course of its 13 month existence saved over 150,000 people.
Between 1991 and 2015, a total of over 600,000 people were rescued by the Guardia Costiera, coordinated through the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC) in Rome. This has made them by far the best trained and best equipped search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean and is the reason so many lives depend on them.
Today, from Sicily to Lampedusa to Malta, the Italian Coast Guard has the warrant to search and rescue over 1 million square kilometers of maritime space.
Every day, two major Guardia Costiera units patrol the Sicilian Channel. Each unit is comprised of a 95m ship with a flight deck manned by a crew of 65.
On Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island located 113 km away from Tunisia, several five-man quick response units called Classe 300 are constantly on standby. These are the newest search and rescue squadrons, generally made up of petty officers and younger officers and are often the groups sent to intervene in the worst weather conditions.
Captain Cafaro remembers a specific rescue operation in December 2013, when a migrant ship coming from Alexandria, Egypt, was hit by a storm that prevented the major units from approaching. “A single Classe 300 unit reached and saved all those people. Over the years, they have saved thousands”
Although the highest numbers of migrants are namely Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi nationals coming through Turkey and Greece, most deaths occur on the Sicilian Channel route between North Africa and Italy. So far in 2016, the Aegean route has seen 383 deaths out of 158,877 arrivals in Greece while the Sicilian Channel has seen 2,505 deaths out of 79,200 arrivals to Italy.
For the four existing migrant sea route leading to Greece from Libya, there are more than 18 leading to Italy from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and more recently Algeria and Greece.
However, the most important aspect of the migrant crisis in Italy is that it is neither recent or cause by a single conflict. It has been increasing for decades and won’t stop whenever peace and stability return to Syria and Libya.
Yada Hatthatummanoon, a human rights lawyer currently specializing in EU migration law at Queen Mary University in London, told us that “the flow of migration in the Mediterranean is of mixed; people move for different reasons – be it fleeing war or escaping economic or even environmental hardship”.
Some countries, like Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan, produce refugees seeking to flee war and violent crime, whereas the poverty in countries like Gambia, the Ivory Coast or Mali produce economic migrants who want to reach Europe for a better life.
“Once the situation in Syria cools down, the Syrian people can choose to stay or return to Syria. Our main concern is Africa: there are millions of people there living in very poor conditions, willing to reach Europe with all the means that they have” says Captain Cafaro.
When weather and sea conditions are clear, 30 or 40 smuggling boats can leave the Libyan coast at once. As a result of this, with migrant boats generally containing between 100 and 150 people, Guardia Costiera rescue operations often rescue up to 4,500 migrants in a single day.
Depending on the route, sea crossings can last from one to four days. Once the migrant ships are ferried outside of Libyan territorial waters and in the Guardia Costiera’s jurisdiction, the smugglers leave them with satellite phones and the MRCC number in Rome. This has made the process of search and rescue much easier; as recently as ten years ago, operations could take days as units combed sectors looking for migrant ships. Today, the MRCC sometimes receives over 25 migrant distress calls simultaneously.
The ships themselves, however, remain the biggest problem. Often overcrowded and so old that engine failure and hull leaks are common, the ships are constantly at risk of sinking. Captain Cafaro explains: “The rubber boats are the most dangerous ones. They are very long, probably built somewhere in Libya and they do not have any separations. A rubber boat is [usually] built with separations so that if a section deflates, the other parts can sustain the whole boat. This kind of boat deflates completely and very rapidly [and] in very few seconds, 30 or 40 people [can be] at sea”.
But the danger doesn’t end when the rescue ships arrive. Sometimes, when the migrants see the rescue units, all move to one side of the boat, causing it to capsize. This is why rescue units are generally sent in pairs, to flank the migrant boats on either side and avoid sudden movement onboard.
And in Cafaro’s experience, most migrants can’t swim or float, so reaching them before anything can happen is absolutely essential: “the probably of sinking gets much higher as time goes by […] Sometimes, we arrive and the boat has already sunk. Sometimes, people are still alive but very rarely.”
“It’s happened that some of our crews have had to deal with [migrants] that were saved […] but later died on board the rescue units and this is devastating. But immediately after, [our units] asked to be sent on another mission as soon as possible. That’s their attitude.”
Despite the incredible strategy and skill that the Guardia have developed over the past decades, the issue remains that their search and rescue operations are mostly in response to crises and not preventative of them. And given that it’s already become clear that the migration of people to western Europe will continue no matter how harsh the deterrent measures are, The European Union must find a long-term solution to, as UN Special Rapporteur François Crépeau said, organize migration instead of resisting it: “That means opening legal channels for people to be able to come and look for work. If you create mechanisms that incentivize people, you would not have underground immigration to such an extent that you have now.”
Cafaro believes that the best solution to avoid casualties is by using humanitarian corridors:
“If we only rely on search and rescue operations, we will always have deaths. We will always have missing people”.
He also reminded me that, despite their struggle to deal the migrant crisis, the attitude within the Guardia hasn’t changed. Laughing when asked as to whether or not officers burnt out or left the Coast Guard, he answered that most personnel actually asks to be sent to Sicily or Lampedusa. “None of us ever quit.”
“Our teams like to say this: ‘Anche oggi, dormiamo domani”
Even today, we sleep tomorrow.