Late last year two boatloads of illegal immigrants capsized and sank in the Mediterranean Sea between North Africa and Italy, killing more than 350 would-be migrants. The two tragic incidents, coming in close succession, caused huge public relations problems for the Italian government. No one in Italy had requested that those desperate migrants pay extortionate sums to human traffickers and attempt the crossing in overcrowded rickety boats. The Italians never asked for them to come. Nevertheless, “world opinion” blamed the Italian government for its negligence when all those asylum-seekers died.
In response, the government launched Operation Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea” in Latin), whereby the Italian Navy was tasked with rescuing every single migrant who attempted to make it to Italian shores. Rescued refugees were brought to port, fed, clothed, and housed until their “asylum” applications were processed by the relevant EU agencies.
Not surprisingly, the new policy resulted in a huge surge of migrants attempting to make the crossing from Libya or Tunisia to Italy. According to the latest estimates, at least 113,000 refugees have landed in Italy since last October, which is a much higher rate of migration than any I have seen since I started monitoring the situation in the Med seven or eight years ago. In contrast, the “Camp of the Saints” crisis of 2011 — which was an unprecedented wave of migration at the time — amounted to just over 60,000 arrivals over the course of a year.
The Italian government has been complaining to the European Union and petitioning for help with Mare Nostrum ever since the operation began. The European Commission kept promising more financial help, but whatever eventually arrived never quite made up for Italy’s increased expenditures. At the same time the EC repeatedly reminded Italy, Spain, and Greece that the primary responsibility for dealing with migrants lay with the countries at the “point of entry” — that is, they were mostly on their own.
In its latest appeals, the Italian government pointed out that Mare Nostrum was costing the Italian Navy €9 million a month ($11.8 million), out of a total naval budget of €9.2 million. This level of expenditure is clearly unsustainable, and the Italians put the EU on notice that they were going to shut down Mare Nostrum unless Brussels did something.
The most recent Italian complaints (and threats) must have been convincing, because on Wednesday EU Interior Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström announced that Mare Nostrum would be folded into Frontex, the EU border agency, and become “Frontex Plus”. Whether this will be more than a cosmetic change, and actually free Italy from some of the burden of mass migration from Africa, remains to be seen.
The raw figures for Italian spending on Mare Nostrum are disturbingly high. €9 million per month over the last ten months comes to roughly €90 million ($118 million). That’s about €800 ($1050) per surviving refugee.
And those are just the costs to the Italian Navy. After the navy unloads the refugees from its landing craft, the culture-enrichers must be housed, fed, clothed, and provided with asylum lawyers, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
But there’s more. Take a close look at the photo at the top of this post, and the one below: