Triton or: How to “Europeanize” the external borders at the expense of migrants

Since 1988, more than 21,000 people have lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to Fortress Europe database[1]. The UNHCR estimates that over 165,000 refugees and migrants arrived by sea in Europe and over 3,000 people have died or are missing at sea so far in 2014[2]. It seems that Mare Nostrum, meaning “Our Sea”, has not been very welcoming to those people who come from the southern rim. “Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people”, said the Director General of International Organization for Migration (IOM), William Lacy Swing. “Undocumented migrants are not criminals. They are human beings in need of protection and assistance and deserving respect”, he stressed in the Foreword of the IOM report “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration”.

In 2013, Frontex detected 40,304 illegal migrants on the “Central Mediterranean” route, a 288 percent rise on 2012. Until that year, many migrants crossed between Turkey and Greece via the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route. In response, Greece strengthened border controls with additional police officers. However, that area remains problematic along with another popular route, that from West Africa to Spain, including its North African territories of Ceuta and Melilla, and the Canary Islands[3].

But who are these people? UNHCR says that the lion’s share coming in 2014 is from Syria and Eritrea. In addition, people from Somalia and Iraq are also arriving by sea in search of safety. More than 3 million people have fled Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011 and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) keeps on driving out thousands more from there as well as Iraq. Further chaos in Libya, Gaza and the region of Sudan and horn of Africa compels a steady flow of “irregular” migrants to flee. Most of them are departing from Libya, whose power vacuum and increasing lawlessness are also forcing more people to take the risk of traveling in unsafe and overcrowded boats under the control of criminal organizations. Syrians alone represented almost a quarter of the total whereas, altogether, detections of Eritreans and Somalis added up to 16 percent of all detections, according to Frontex. This relatively large share shows the importance of the migration flow from the Horn of Africa to the EU, a flow that is often perilous as migrants have to cross the Sahara, transit through Libya and then cross the Mediterranean Sea.

According to the European Union Institute for Security Studies, EU countries took in around 135,000 refugees last year but although 2013 marked the highest ever number of applications to the EU since its statistical office began compiling records in 2008, asylum requests jumped a further 30 percent in the first quarter of this year. The final figure for 2014 will be much higher not only because of this summer’s migrations but also because the crossings now happen all year round[4]. Against this background, governments need to coordinate on a multilateral level to guarantee that those running away from persecutions could attain safe passage to countries that might grant them the protections they are entitled to under the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR) and the international law. The point is that first they must reach European soil, and they often do so without legal authorization.

The spike in migrant deaths and the extraordinary migratory flows from Africa and Asia have made Europe the most deadly migration destination. Reasonable grounds to work on an overall reform of the European Common Migration Policy involving rescue at sea capacities. Since Italy launched Mare Nostrum, its search and rescue operation, the Italian navy and coast guard have saved thousands of men, women and children attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the operation is unsurprisingly controversial. On the one hand, critics say that Mare Nostrum encouraged migration because, by reducing the risk of death, smugglers could guarantee the crossing. The IOM refused that argument, maintaining the huge boost in migrants trying to cross the sea towards Europe has been generated by wars in Syria and Iraq, anarchy in Libya, disorder in Egypt besides unrest and need in the Horn of Africa and West Africa. On the other hand, especially some NGOs highlight Mare Nostrum has relaunched the humanitarian-military nexus in every aspect of migration management.

Angelino Alfano, the Minister of the Interior of Italy, has repeatedly depicted his country as a champion of welcoming illegal immigrants. A title that Italy would be pleased to give up as operation Mare Nostrum officially ended on November 1. It should be “replaced” by Triton, a Frontex-led operation which raised various reservations about its potential effectiveness.

If illegal immigration is an EU problem, will Triton be able to handle the surge of desperate people coming from the southern rim of the Mediterranean? Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Mare Nostrum costs the navy €9 million per month. Triton’s monthly budget is estimated at €2.9 million per month. In order to finance the launch and the first phase of the operation, funds have been reallocated from the Internal Security Fund and from within the Frontex budget[5]. The capacities of Frontex to carry out the mission are however questioned by EU Member states and civil society. Since 2009, neither the European Parliament nor EU Member States have been willing to increase the Frontex resources. Accordingly, it is not a surprise that Frontex 2014 budget for joint operations adds up to just €42 million (see: Frontex Budget 2014).

Cecilia Malmström, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, warned that Frontex alone would not be enough and, as it cannot afford to buy its own equipment, it must rely on the goodwill of member states. “Frontex can do a lot, but we do not have the means to totally substitute Mare Nostrum unless all other member countries also contribute with vessels or helicopters or staff or money”. In other terms, its hands are tied. Anyway, ending Frontex activities would lead to a return to national policies, throwing away the idea of a shared solution.

An increase of the Frontex 2015 budget has to be agreed by the European Parliament and the Council in order to finance the operation with the same intensity in the longer run but it’s apparent that Frontex cannot face on its own this challenge. “Mare Nostrum was conceived as a limited, emergency operation after the Lampedusa tragedy, and it went on longer than expected”, Alfano stated. “We can say Italy did its duty”[6], the Italian minister said, implying that Italy’s rescue operation in the Mediterranean is supposed to be over, as if henceforth migrants’ destiny is an EU responsibility. Yet, Triton does not replace Mare Nostrum, in toto at least. Gil Arias-Fernández, Frontex Deputy Executive Director, said that Operation Triton begins “independently of what happens to Mare Nostrum: the decision whether to cut back or terminate this last operation falls to the Italian government”[7].

Indeed, Triton’s scope of intervention would be limited to European territorial waters, whereas Mare Nostrum extended its action to international waters. Moreover, as the mandate of Frontex is to watch the borders, the primary function of Triton will be to control borders, not to rescue at sea. As a result, Triton is intended to support the Italian efforts, not to replace or substitute Italian obligations in monitoring and surveying the Schengen external borders and in guaranteeing full respect of EU and international obligations, in particular when it comes to search and rescue at sea[8]. It implies that Italy will have to keep on making substantial efforts using national means, fully coordinated with the Frontex operation, to manage the situation.

As a result, the EU has fallen in a grey zone since it did not manage to accomplish the whole mission. It has effectively “Europeanized” the external borders but continues to be unwilling to “Europeanize” the border management. And while EU’s response remains vacillating and uncertain, the situation of other actors in this play definitely gets worse. Images of desperate men and women, with babies in their arms, into overcrowded boats, show no sign of decreasing. The destiny of thousands of people is dramatically moving toward a cul-de-sac.



[1] Del Grande G., Un cimitero chiamato Mediterraneo, “Fortress Europe”, June 30, 2014  –

[2] UNHCR, So close, yet so far from safety, 2014 –

[4] Brady H., Mare Europeum? Tackling Mediterranean Migration, “EU Institute for Security Studies”, 2014.

[5] European Commission, Frontex Joint Operation ‘Triton’ – Concerted efforts to manage migration in the Central Mediterranean, October 7, 2014 –

[7] Anon., Frontex Triton operation to ‘support’ Italy’s Mare Nostrum, “ANSA”, October 16, 2014 –

[8] European Commission, Frontex Joint Operation ‘Triton’ – Concerted efforts to manage migration in the Central Mediterranean, October 7, 2014 –


Other sources:

Anon., Mapping Mediterranean migration, “BBC”, September 15, 2014 –

Brian T., Laczko F. (eds.), Fatal Journeys. Tracking Lives lost during Migration, Geneva, International Organization of Migration, 2014 –

Frontex, Budget 2014, February 14, 2014 –

Squires N., How Mediterranean migrants have increased since Italy began search-and-rescue, “The Telegraph”, October 29, 2014 –

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