Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency has launched a new operation in the Central Mediterranean to assist Italy in border control activities.
The new Mediterranean operation called Themis which was launched on Thursday is aimed at removing the obligation of the previous mission to bring rescued migrants only to Italy.
Triton, which was the previous Frontex operation launched in 2014, required all those rescued at sea to be brought to Italy even if another EU country, such as Malta, was closer.
“Triton said that whoever rescued would be taken to Italy,” Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for Frontex said. “Themis leaves the decision on disembarkation to the [country] coordinating a particular rescue.”
The launch of Operation Themis comes on the back of mass attempts by migrants to cross to Europe by boat on often dangerous sea voyages.
Some 22,000 migrants have died since 2000 trying to cross the Mediterranean. Scores of these migrants are from Syria, Eritrea, Gambia and Ghana. Others are from Mali, Nigeria, the Palestinian territories and Somalia.
Italy has over the years urged the EU to do more to help cope with the migrant problem, as it continues to have a drain on the country’s public purse.
Italy at the moment coordinates the vast majority of sea rescues between North Africa and its southern coast and hence the new rule may not have a large impact on arrivals. But it may be a cause for Mediterranean neighbours like Malta to worry about.
The Operation Themis will focus more on law enforcement. In a statement, Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri said: “Operation Themis will better reflect the changing patterns of migration, as well as cross-border crime.”
“Frontex will also assist Italy in tracking down criminal activities, such as drug smuggling across the Adriatic,” the statement added.
The one-year mission will be re-evaluated every three months and will include Italy’s southern Adriatic coast.
Themis vessels are also not expected to patrol further than 24 miles from the coast, unlike Triton which extended about 30 miles from the Italian coast.
Triton was not a search-and-rescue operation but it has helped in the rescue of 38,000 people since 2014.
Cooper said about 10 Themis vessels will be operating in the summer and will also carry out rescues if asked. But the Frontex spokeswoman was quick to add that no rescued migrants will be taken to non-EU countries, like Libya or Tunisia.
Italian media have been suggesting that migrants would be taken to the “closest port”, but Cooper said the international maritime law, which ensures they be taken to the nearest “place of safety”, would still be followed.
In January, 4,256 migrants reached Italy by sea. This was a 6 percent decline on the same month last year. Arrivals from Libya, where most people smugglers operate, were down almost 26 percent. Italy sealed a deal a year ago with Tripoli to provide aid, equipment and training to help Libya fight smuggling.