Late last year the Italian government scrapped its Mediterranean search and rescue operation the Mare Nostrum after funding shortages. The project was partially replaced by Operation Triton - but the service is far more restricted than its predecessor, both in geography (the patrols only go up to 30 miles off the Italian coast) and budget (roughly a third of Mare Nostrum). Critics have said it could leave tens of thousands of migrants at far greater risk.
The most common argument for the shift was deterrence. Previously, proponents argued, the migrants in the boats and their smugglers could be fairly certain that they would be rescued by one of Mare Nostrum’s ships.
Baroness Anelay, British Foreign Office minister, argued at the time that such rescue missions only encouraged more people to make the treacherous journey.
Yet if the ending of Mare Nostrum was intended to be a deterrent, so far it has failed. There has been a spike in the numbers of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean; to around 7,000 so far in 2015 from 3,338 in the same period in 2014, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR (see chart below).
And the number of people dying has spiked, too (see second chart, below). So far this year over 300 are believed to have drowned – the majority after four dinghies carrying West African migrants capsized. In the same period in 2014, the number was just 12.
There are also concerns about the capacity of the new operation’s smaller and less well-equipped boats. Twenty-nine migrants died of hypothermia after they were picked up by a Triton vessel.
Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director John Dalhuisen said the deaths could suggest medical care on board is not adequate.
“It’s possible the Italian coast guards did what they could with the resources they had. They clearly were not enough. Unless EU member states commit to significantly increasing search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean, tragedies like these will only multiply,” he said in a statement.
UNHCR UK said the stats showed the "urgent need" to properly replace the Mare Nostrum.
Levels of desperation among would-be migrants and asylum seekers are at a historic high. In 2014, Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic and South Sudan were all classified as highest-level emergencies by the UN.
Syria alone has produced over 3 million refugees and is now the country of origin for the largest number of migrants arriving in Italy.
In Libya, the country's security vacuum has made it far easier for smugglers to operate. With safer, overland routes to Europe more tightly restricted and other countries such as Australia increasing their barriers, the treacherous journey is all that remains for many desperate residents.