EU border agency rescue effort moved closer to Libya

Italy Migrants
Italy Migrants

A woman holds her child as they disembark from the Iceland Coast Guard vessel Tyr, at the Messina harbor, Sicily, southern Italy, Wednesday, May 6, 2015.

The European Union’s border agency said Thursday its ships are working closer to conflict-torn Libya than ever but will enter those potentially dangerous territorial waters only to rescue migrants in trouble.

Around 75,000 migrants have been picked up trying to enter Italy and Greece from Libya so far this year. More than 1,800 are feared to have died.

Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri said that the agency’s patrol boats and aircraft “are approximately 80 nautical miles from the Libyan shore.” Most rescue emergencies happen some 40 nautical miles from Libya.

Frontex has been widely criticized for staying too close to Italy, but with new assets and a bigger budget pledged to its Triton Mediterranean surveillance operation at an emergency EU summit last month, the agency has extended its work to the southern edge of Malta’s territorial waters.

Triton border guards were threatened twice this year by Kalashnikov-wielding people smugglers demanding their boats back, and Leggeri said that rescuers may require help from the new EU military operation being prepared to chase down smugglers.

“If in the future, Triton-coordinated assets have to go closer to the Libyan shore for search and rescue operations then it might happen that they need protection,” he said at a press conference in Brussels. “Nobody wants to have casualties,” he added.

Leggeri said more migrants were starting to arrive in Europe through the eastern Mediterranean, from places like Turkey, and that fewer were taking to the seas off Libya in recent weeks because smugglers are running out of boats.

Greek authorities said the coast guard has picked up 216 people in the Aegean Sea who entered the country illegally by sailing from the Turkish coast to nearby islands overnight, raising the total this week to more than 1,500.

He noted that no new ‘ghost ships’ incidents – where smugglers run cargo vessels laden with migrants toward European shores on automatic pilot – have been reported since the 15 cases from last summer through to January.


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