From Mare Nostrum to Triton

The umpteenth sinking of a migrant ship in the Mediterranean Sea and the deaths of 8-900 migrants in a single shipwreck have turned the spotlights of the whole world onto the humanitarian tragedy of incalculable dimensions which is developing a few kilometres from the coast of Europe. This time it happened on the night of Saturday and Sunday (18-19 April) in the Mediterranean Sea. In spite of its apocalyptic character, this massacre is nothing out of the ordinary. It is only the latest in a long series of tragedies, with thousands of victims, most of them young and from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, fleeing wars and the devastation which capitalism brings.

The `ordinary’ character of this tragedy is demonstrated by the fact that in 2014 alone, more than 3,000 people drowned. (The sinking of the Titanic resulted in 1,500 deaths.) The Mediterranean Sea is, according to a United Nations study, the most deadly `road’ in the world. While corpses continue to be taken from the sea and millions of people absorb the shock of this unprecedented tragedy, news arrives of new massacres of migrants like those which happened two days later on the coast of the Greek island of Rhodes, in which another hundred migrants travelling from Turkey lost their lives. Faceless numbers which hide the loss of young lives from countries devastated by poverty and war.

These tragedies have shaken the consciousness of millions of people all over the world and in particular millions of Italian citizens accustomed as they are to living on a different kind of shore of the Mediterranean - the one with shady pine trees and days by the sea with the family. On the other hand, these tragedies can reinforce the demand to close the borders which is made by some sectors of the population in the context of resources being stretched by the crisis, and bring them closer to the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by the Northern League and amplified by the media.

As was to be expected, all the leading politicians of the ’Beautiful Country’ (Bel Paese), from the leader of the Northern League, Salvini, to Georgia Meloni (leader of ‘Fratelli d’Italia’, right wing split from Berlusconi’s Party) and up to the ‘radical’ Nichi Vendola, have eagerly taken advantage of the occasion to talk about themselves and to have themselves talked about - commenting on the events and putting forward the most improbable interpretations and solutions.

We consider the words of Daniela Santanchè, one of the more right wing supporters of Berlusconi, who suggested sinking the ships at sea, revolting and we think they express only the callous inhumanity of the speaker. But at the same time we will not fall into the pious game of those who have attacked her - the `jackals’ - for hiding their own equally serious responsibilities. The government parties and a large part of the opposition have for years supported the international policy of the European Union, including the bombing of Libya in 2011, which have contributed to the current situation.

The destruction of the Ghadaffi regime by the military intervention of France and Britain, supported by the Italian president, Napolitano, and `critically’ by right-wing leader, Berlusconi, destroyed the territorial integrity of the Libyan state, weakening the agreements which the former Libyan authorities and the West had made on the control of migration flows.

The Libyan state apparatus no longer exists. In its place there are political entities which do not recognise each other and are fighting each other in the context of a complex mosaic of clans and tribes, inside which jihadist groups also operate. The Libyan coast-line is covered with enormous prison camps containing tens of thousands of Nigerians, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalis, Ghanaians and Sudanese who live in conditions of absolute poverty and semi-slavery, treated like commodities for trade to make enormous profits for the traffickers but most of all for the criminal organisations behind them. The immigrants, forced to pay thousands of euros for the journey to Europe, are merchandise used to produce profit and are a blackmail threat to Europe in the hands of these traffickers. For this reason departures from Libya have increased, will increase in the coming months and will continue to increase.

According to some estimates made by NGOs which operate on Libyan territory, there are more than a million refugees in the country ready to leave to reach the European continent through Italy. The arrival of summer can only accelerate the frequency of these journeys.

The massacre of 18-19 April will pass into history as a foreseen massacre - a massacre predicted and preventable.

What was Mare Nostrum?

The sinking of a Libyan vessel on 3 October 2013, a few kilometres from the port of Lampedusa, which killed 366 people, caused a wave of protest and national and international political pressure, which forced the government then led by Enrico Letta to intervene to avoid the repetition of similar events. Hedged in by public opinion, the Vatican and sectors of the European Union, the Letta government decided to launch Operation Mare Nostrum on 14 October 2013. This was a military and humanitarian mission whose principal objective was maritime assistance and the rescue of migrants.

Over the course of about a year and with 558 interventions, Mare Nostrum assisted more than one hundred thousand migrants to safety, saving the lives of thirty thousand. It cost €114 million - €9.5 million per month. In spite of its success, the operation was cancelled, as one of the many cuts to public spending, and replaced by the European operations called Frontex Plus and Triton. These, though they involved 29 countries, had a budget of only €2.9 million equal to one third of the monthly cost of Mare Nostrum.

Operation Triton had aims very different from those of Mare Nostrum. Triton covered border control and assistance at sea only in the case of vessels thirty miles from the Italian coast. As Gil Arias Fernandez, executive director of Frontex, Mare Nostrum and Triton, explains Triton had the principal aim of border control and not search and rescue which was at the centre of the Italian operation.

Urgent action

To try and prevent new catastrophes from happening, an international maritime assistance plan must be re-established in international waters and, if necessary, in Libyan national waters. Assistance must be guaranteed to every human being. No political consideration in immigration matters can neglect this elementary fact.

The Italian capitalist class is not inclined to take on the entire cost of reintroducing an operation such as Mare Nostrum and is asking for European Union support. On the other hand, it is clear that such costs must not be met from cuts to social welfare or taxes on workers and the middle class. The European Union cannot exist only for demanding sacrifices from Greece, spending reviews and austerity.

All the solutions which Italian and European politicians are shouting about - support for the `legitimate’ government in Tobruk, sending a peacekeeping force to Libya, a naval blockade in the Mediterranean, the opening of holding centres on Libyan soil, sinking ships with United Nations cover - are impractical proposals, which will have no effect and which demonstrate the total inability of European politicians to confront the major problems of our time.

Weeping crocodile tears over the tragedies, establishing `days of remembrance’, holding state funerals cannot restore life or dignity to the unfortunates who have died in the Mediterranean!

In contrast to the empty words of politicians in recent years has been the spontaneous and selfless solidarity and assistance of the people of Lampedusa, Catania and Palermo. It is the best answer to whoever, among the many politicians, cynically exploits these events, profiting ignobly from the tragedies of others. But the solidarity and generosity of Italian citizens are not sufficient to avoid these tragedies.


There is an immediate problem - that of not leaving thousands of people to die. This can only be resolved by mobilising every means available. Control over all decisions which affect immigrants should be in the hands of representatives of ordinary working people and not wealthy politicians with their own interests to protect.

It is not enough to try and deal with the consequences of the problem: it must be solved.

In the framework of a capitalist economy, of speculation on the prices of raw materials, of widespread poverty and conflicts fed by Western imperialism (including Italian imperialism) the phenomenon of mass migration is inevitable. Given that Europe cannot be surrounded by barbed wire the solution to the problem must be political.

Only a society freed from poverty, from the exploitation of labour and from war will be able to guarantee to every human being the freedom to choose between living with dignity in their own country and moving to another country, without having to fear the consequences of such a choice. This is what we call a socialist society.

A first step in the direction of this society is to reject a policy which often uses our money to finance its shady traffic under the cover of cooperatives which deal with immigration and `international cooperation’ and which finance military expeditions abroad which drive the explosion of mass migration.

Committee for a workers' International publications


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