In October 2014, Frontex, the European Union’s border security agency, decided to end Operation Mare Nostrum (search-and-rescue missions to save migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean) and replaced it with a significantly downscaled version known as Operation Triton. Mare Nostrum had become too costly for a single country to fund – it was costing the Italian government 9 million euros per month and other EU member states had declined to contribute financial support. In an attempt to justify the halting of Mare Nostrum, European interior ministers pronounced that the rescue missions were acting as a “pull factor” for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue and leading to more deaths as people traffickers exploited the situation.
Lady Anelay spelled out British policy in a House of Lords written answer: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people-smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”
Apparently, the rationale behind the policy was to deter such perilous journeys by sending word to would-be refugees in Syria and Libya that there was no prospect of rescue at sea. The strategy of ‘drowning a migrant to save a migrant’ was condemned by Amnesty International UK director, Kate Allen: “The vague prospect of rescue has never been the incentive. War, poverty and persecution are what make desperate people take terrible risks. History will judge this decision as unforgivable.”
The number of migrants who drowned while crossing the Mediterranean increased dramatically after Operation Triton came into force in November 2015. A single Libyan migrant shipwreck on 19th April 2015 resulted in over 900 deaths. According to the New York Times, early 2015 saw a 1600% increase in the number of migrants drowning while attempting to cross the Mediterranean as compared to the same period in early 2014. The International Organisation for Migration, calculating that deaths at sea rose nine times after the end of Operation Mare Nostrum, warned that hundreds of thousands of people were planning to attempt the crossing from Libya, a lawless state with two competing governments at war with each other and incapable of policing people-smuggling gangs.