The rescuers prepare for the calm days, more than the stormy ones.
On land in small towns near the Libyan coast, refugees from Africa and the Middle East are crowded into safe houses, waiting for good weather. When the sea quiets, the refugees pack onto rubber dinghies or large wooden fishing vessels and set off in the early morning toward Europe.
An average of 3,500 people have died each year while trying to make the journey to Italy from North Africa since 2014. Their vessels are overcrowded, unseaworthy, and have a near-nothing chance of making it to Europe. Most of the boats sink just 20 to 40 miles from the Libyan coast.
These are preventable deaths. Since 2014, the European Union has deliberately chosen to keep their coast guard patrol boats far from where the shipwrecks happen, a decision detailed in an internal letter obtained by The Intercept and other leaked documents. Saving more lives, the logic goes, will only encourage more refugees to come. The result is that rescue boats are kept away from where rescues are actually needed.
The Italian navy used to run patrols near the Libyan coast. Their operation, called Mare Nostrum — “our sea” in Latin — involved a large mobilization of ships, planes, and helicopters in international waters close to Libya, where boats carrying refugees regularly capsized and sank. Mare Nostrum was enormously successful — in the year it ran, it saved over 150,000 people. Still, on October 31, 2014, Italy announced it would phase out the program.
The following day, Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, took over with an operation called Triton. In a press release at the time, Frontex said its operation followed in the wake of Mare Nostrum and was intended to support the Italian authorities. There was one key difference from Mare Nostrum, however: Frontex would limit its patrols to just 30 miles off Italy’s coast, which was about 130 miles from Libya — at least a 12-hour sail. Frontex was deliberately not patrolling the area where most of the shipwrecks occurred.