Italy’s tire­less coast­guard on busiest mi­grant year

‘As soon as some­one calls for help, we be­come con­duc­tors’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

It has been a record year for Italy’s coast­guard, with nearly 180,000 peo­ple res­cued in the Mediter­ranean, longer days than ever be­fore and, de­spite their ef­forts, thou­sands of vic­tims. In a small room in a soul­less min­istry build­ing in the south of Rome, red tele­phones ring and op­er­a­tives jug­gle with maps on gi­ant screens on the walls as they co­or­di­nate all res­cue op­er­a­tions off Libya. “As soon as some­one calls for help, we be­come con­duc­tors,” di­rect­ing any nearby ves­sels-be they coast­guard, mil­i­tary, pri­vate or com­mer­cial-to de­tour to the res­cue zone, spokesman Filippo Marini told AFP.

In the gloom of the op­er­a­tions cen­tre, SOS calls are re­duced to lit­tle more than co­or­di­nates, han­dled with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion. But the cries of des­per­ate mi­grants, faces numbed by fear and hands out­stretched for help as they slip off sink­ing dinghies, are not far off, with a video of past res­cues play­ing on a loop on a gi­ant screen in the cor­ri­dor.

Spread up and down the 8,000 kilo­me­ters of Ital­ian coast­line, the 11,000 mem­bers of the coast­guard are charged with en­sur­ing mar­itime safety, pro­tect­ing the ecosys­tem and reg­u­lat­ing the fish­ing in­dus­try. They tra­di­tion­ally sur­vey an area of 500,000 square kilo­me­ters off Italy’s shores. But an un­der­per­form­ing coast­guard in cri­sis-hit Libya means the Rome Res­cue Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre (MRCC) ac­tu­ally has au­thor­ity over most of the in­ter­na­tional wa­ters be­tween both coun­tries.

More boats, fewer phones

The seas teem with ac­tiv­ity. Around 170,000 peo­ple were res­cued from mi­grant boats in 2014, with an­other 153,000 picked up in 2015 and nearly 180,000 this year-in­clud­ing 4,000 just last week, de­spite wors­en­ing weather at sea. And the smug­glers have upped their game, send­ing more of their smaller boats-and dinghies rather than wooden ves­sels-and dis­patch­ing lots at the same time. This year saw a 40-per­cent rise in the num­ber of boats res­cued.

“The smug­glers used to send big­ger boats, each with a satel­lite phone” to call for aid, said Ser­gio Liardo, the cen­tre’s head. “Now they set off four boats out with one phone.” Pa­trolling ves­sels can eas­ily find the dinghy with the phone but have to look out for the other three, which can de­flate and take wa­ter quickly. Drown­ing is not the only killer here: over­crowd­ing, hy­pother­mia or fuel burns can also fin­ish off in a few hours peo­ple weak­ened by ter­ri­ble con­di­tions en­dured try­ing to get this far.

As well as the thou­sands of mi­grants lost in sec­onds to the waves-some­times as the res­cue crews look help­lessly on-the coast­guard’s near­daily press re­leases this year have pro­vided a run­ning tally of corpses dis­cov­ered aboard dinghies.

Stal­wart duty

The NGO-led res­cue ves­sels pa­trolling the area have tes­ti­fied to how dif­fi­cult it can be to spot a dinghy in the im­mense blue and reg­u­larly warn some may be sink­ing with­out a trace. “We can­not rule that out,” Liardo ad­mits. And while in the past each day of calm seas would see a hand­ful of boats set off, this year saw a se­ries of mass depar­tures. More than 13,000 peo­ple were res­cued in one week at the end of May, some 14,000 oth­ers in five days of good weather in Au­gust-with a record hit with 7,000 peo­ple on 53 boats picked up in one day-and 6,000 more on Oc­to­ber 3 alone.

In Italy, where re­cep­tion cen­ters are at burst­ing point, the fig­ures have stirred up a storm, with the anti-estab­lish­ment Five-Star Move­ment and anti-im­mi­grant North­ern League in­sist­ing it is not Rome’s job to res­cue for­eign­ers off Libya and house them here. The gov­ern­ment says res­cue ops at sea will have cost 1.5 bil­lion euros this year, with an ex­tra 2.3 bil­lion euros spent on re­cep­tion. “We have a duty not to let these peo­ple die. If we ig­nored it, we would have to an­swer to the Ital­ian jus­tice sys­tem,” Marini said. “It’s also a ques­tion of hu­man kind­ness,” he added. — AFP

ROME: This file photo taken on May 28, 2015 shows Ital­ian of­fi­cer Gian­luca D’Agostino of the Ital­ian Coast Guard, look­ing at a map of the Mediter­ranean Sea, in the con­trol cen­ter at the head­quar­ter of Ital­ian Coast Guard. — AFP

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