The Italian Navy frigate Maestrale brings aboard 76 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in October during Operation Mare Nostrum. (Italian Defense Ministry)
ROME — The Italian Navy opened fire on human traffickers in the Mediterranean Sea last fall as thousands of migrants, including sub-Saharan Africans and Syrians, made desperate bids to sail to Italy.
On April 10, Navy chief Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi revealed details of the operation to rescue migrants at sea, which has employed submarines, frigates, amphibious transport dock ships (LPDs), helicopters and drones and picked up 18,546 migrants since October.
Due to the war in Syria, the fallout from the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa, and poverty and political instability in sub-Saharan Africa, thousands are seeking a new life in Europe, aided by traffickers suspected of links to criminal and terrorist groups.
De Giorgi said 42,925 migrants made it to Italy by sea in 2013, a 224 percent rise over the previous year.
“This is a biblical exodus, and turning them back is not part of our mission,” he said.
The operation began last year after 364 migrants died when their vessel caught fire and then sank.
Dubbed “Mare Nostrum,” the operation has so far deployed three Italian LPDs, on which migrants are given care and fingerprinted before being taken to migrant centers in Sicily. Frigates, corvettes and patrol vessels also play a role, as do two AW101 helicopters equipped with infrared sensors and P180 aircraft with forward-looking infrared systems.
“Each migrant ship now contains 200 to 300 migrants, and they are also coming in rough seas, so we need frigates to pick them up,” De Giorgi said.
The Navy has so far boarded eight vessels, mounted 117 search-and-rescue operations and handed 66 traffickers over to Italian authorities.
The crisis peaked last week as 4,000 migrants reached Italy within two days.
“The landings are non-stop and the emergency is increasingly glaring,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who said Italy is receiving insufficient aid from other European countries to cope with the flow of migrants.
Alfano estimated that up to 600,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East are poised to set sail from Libya, where security conditions are worsening.
De Giorgi told reporters that “well-trained” traffickers sailing from Egypt have developed the practice of setting out in mother ships, which tow smaller boats carrying hundreds of migrants. In the middle of the Mediterranean, the mother ships release the migrants, who then seek assistance from Italian Navy vessels.
De Giorgi said the Navy’s arrest of 60 traffickers and the seizure of two mother ships is having a deterrent effect.
He revealed that in November, a mother ship towing a migrant vessel out of Egypt had been followed for 48 hours. An Italian submarine was involved in the tracking, and followed at a distance with its periscope raised. The information was sent to Italian prosecutors, who authorized the arrests of the traffickers, De Giorgi said.
Before that could happen, the mother ship untied the migrant vessel and pulled away at high speed. The migrants, seeing an aircraft overhead, set fire to blankets to attract its attention, risking a fire on their vessel.
The Italian submarine surfaced, and an Arab speaker on board used a loudspeaker to warn the migrants to extinguish the flames. An Italian vessel, the Stromboli, then picked up the migrants.
Meanwhile, the frigate Aliseo chased the mother ship for four hours, eventually using machine-gun fire to halt the vessel.
“They were good sailors, not scared,” said De Giorgi, who added that the Navy has the right to stop ships in international waters if they are not flying national colors.
The interception sent a message to other traffickers, he said. “It made them understand we are serious.”
The operation is costing the Navy €9 million (US $12 million) a month, with no top-up funding from the Italian government, De Giorgi said, with training budgets being cut as a result.
Apart from the Navy, the Italian Air Force is flying Predator UAVs to assist surveillance in the Mediterranean, with 25 missions flown so far for a total of 350 flying hours, resulting in five spottings of migrant vessels, an Air Force spokesman said.
Hitherto, the UAVs had been flown from their base at Foggia in southern Italy. But the spokesman said a ground base has been set up at Sigonella Air Base in Sicily, closer to where the vessels are sailing, to cut response time. The spokesman declined to say if UAV flights from Sigonella had yet to take place.
The mission marks a new duty for Italy’s unarmed Predators, which have been deployed in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and reportedly in Sicily, where they have been used to track Mafia suspects. ■