Commentary. The Italian search and rescue program established after the Lampedusa tragedy was shut down by the Renzi government after a year. If it had persisted, the Cutro disaster might never have happened.

The only humane possibility is to return to Mare Nostrum

At this point, there is a mass death of migrants every decade in the Mediterranean near the Italian coast. The first was the tragedy of Portopalo on Christmas Day 1996, with 280 victims. The second was that of Kater i Rades in 1997, when an Albanian boat was rammed by an Italian military vessel resulting in the deaths of more than 100 migrants. The protagonists were refugees fleeing Albania’s civil war – whose government had decided to close its outbound borders, at the explicit request of the “democratic” Italian government, which took the disastrous decision to enact a naval blockade.

Fifteen years later, in 2013, there was the Lampedusa tragedy with the sinking of a Libyan ship loaded with migrants a few miles off the coast: the worst mass death of all, with 368 lives lost. And now we have the Cutro massacre, about which we know everything except what would actually make some sense of it.

In the comments that came out immediately following the disasters, one could see one script playing out over and over again: a meaningless debate built on the assumption that the migrants are victims of someone else who determines their decisions and organizes their journey, often prodding them to undertake it: the smugglers or “meat merchants.” The other assumption is that one can’t let all these people in, and that one must defend national borders from the encroachment of uncontrolled immigration. All accompanied by proposing the hypocritical “solution” that “we need to help them at home.”

At the beginning of this century, the task of control was assigned to an EU agency, Frontex, based in Warsaw and in operation since 2004, which has received enormous funding from the budgets of EU countries. The resources at Frontex’s disposal were intended to “ensure the protection of the external borders of the EU area of free movement”: that is, to stop migrants.

Against the background of the gradual rise of closure policies, something changed after the Lampedusa tragedy, with the establishment in Italy of the “Mare Nostrum” intervention program, spurred by the emotionally charged climate – “never again” – and a different analysis of the reasons why people leave, going against the conventional debate: a political choice against the trend but in line with the unwritten “law of the sea.”

In contrast to the functions of Frontex, the tasks of Operation Mare Nostrum were search and rescue. And its patrolling of the Sicilian channel was exclusively in order to search for and rescue migrants in distress: an operation with a high humanitarian value.

Established by the Letta government at the end of 2013, Mare Nostrum was shut down just a year later by the Renzi government, and this was – one must acknowledge this fact – not only because of domestic pressure but also because of European pressure. There was the accusation that the operation, by providing greater security conditions for potential immigrants, could have an incentivizing influence for new departures and – according to a highly hypocritical thought process – new tragedies.

It would have been enough to look at the routes followed and the national origin of the migrants to see that this thesis had nothing to do with reality. In fact, what determined the routes and origin of migrants from one moment to the next was only and simply the fact that they were fleeing from areas of danger and war.

When Mare Nostrum was shut down, the task of searching for and rescuing migrants passed from public hands to the NGOs; then an operation of vilification and control over the volunteer ships began, first subjecting them to unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and then to a real persecution campaign that is still ongoing, primarily at the initiative of the Lega and Salvini. This has made the migrants’ journeys more dangerous.

As for the old bromide that “we must help them at home,” trotted out in recent days by Prime Minister Meloni, it should be pointed out that many have no home to return to. And as far as migrant journeys are concerned, it has become clear that there is no need for anyone to push or incentivize them to make the decision to flee from persecution and war, and also from the desperation of hunger. In a different climate, such as the one that Mare Nostrum had created, perhaps the tragedy in Cutro would not have happened.

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