April 2015 was the month that the EU finally woke up to the terrible reality of the growing migration crisis in the Mediterranean. For months, thousands had been crossing on small, massively overcrowded and rickety boats, fleeing civil war in Libya and Syria. Hoping for a new life in Europe, they pay often unscrupulous ‘people smugglers’, as they’ve become known, to take them across.

Since the Arab Spring and the ensuing turmoil, hundreds of thousands have arrived in Europe this way. But on 14 April, up to 400 migrants (it’s impossible to know the exact number) died when their ship capsized only 24 hours after setting sail from Libya. More died in one night than in the entire month of February. More major shipwrecks occurred in April, one of them claiming the lives of about 800 victims.

From 18 October 2013, the Italian Government, through its Mare Nostrum operation, was responsible for search and rescue, with the Italian Navy operating near the coast of Libya. During this time, Italy says it enabled the safe arrival in Europe of at least 150,000 migrants, but the programme was shut down, as was planned, a year later due its costliness.

Italy, in the continued grip of fiscal austerity, had asked for funding from other EU member states to help pay for these operations, but to no avail; many believed – perhaps wishfully – that scaling down search and rescue in the Mediterranean would dissuade migrants from risking the journey. This meant that for several months there was effectively no major search-and-rescue operation in the region.

Stop the sinkings

In the aftermath of the April disasters, amid international outcry, an emergency meeting was called by Europe’s heads of state to resolve the crisis and quickly stop the shipwrecks and sinkings taking place on an almost daily basis. They looked to Frontex, the historically low-key

EU agency responsible for helping police Europe’s external borders, to solve the problem.

Frontex’s origins come down to the complex rules that govern the EU’s open-border system. The creation of the borderless Schengen Area has put significant pressure, in terms of resources and manpower, on EU states with non-EU borders, as they are not only guarding their own borders, but those of their partners as well.

"Basically, the countries of the EU that no longer have their external borders have to rely on checks and surveillance conducted by those countries that do," says Izabella Cooper, a spokesperson for Frontex. "There was a clear need to create a mechanism that would channel this technical solidarity when it came to border controls, or those countries would face increased migratory pressure."

The agency’s mandate has certainly broadened since its foundation. It’s just received additional funds for the operation of Triton, the name given to the Mediterranean operation, but its budget has been increasing proportionally since its operations began in 2005. From humble beginnings with funds of €16 million, it currently takes in more than €140 million – having begun with only 19 staff members, it now employs 120 and has gone from running only a few training sessions to designing training curricula for all of Europe’s border security.

Team effort

"The countries of the EU that no longer have their external borders have to rely on checks and surveillance conducted by those countries that do." 

All EU members subsidise Frontex’s operations through their individual contributions to the EU, and are obliged to deploy border control staff and equipment to assist the agency in its day-to-day work. For Triton, the operation requires six offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), 12 patrol boats, two helicopters and four aircraft to effectively assist the Italian authorities. Frontex has to ensure that the monthly levels of deployment remain at similar levels, which are looking to rise as funding increases kick in.

"These [vessels] come from many European countries," says Cooper. "Some of them deploy, say, a vessel for six months, usually countries farther away from the place, because Frontex reimburses their operational costs and basic maintenance during the deployment.

"To give you an example, Iceland will deploy its vessel typically for several months, whereas Spain or Portugal may send their vessel for one to two months."

Having taken over much of the work of the Mare Nostrum operation in October last year, albeit with significantly less funding and a mandate not focused on search and rescue but on surveillance, European leaders agreed to triple the budget of Triton to €120 million, thrusting an organisation that set out simply to provide logistical help for EU border guards to the forefront of one of the worst crises in Europe in recent history.

"The aims of both operations were very different," insists Cooper. "Mare Nostrum was exclusively a search-and-rescue operation run by the Italian military. Frontex is a border control agency, so our primary focus is always on surveillance and border control."

This difference, while important for Cooper to emphasise for public affairs reasons, largely comes down to the semantics of the mandate. With the absence of an official major search-and-rescue operation with significant resources, it’s now down to Frontex and Triton to attempt to do what Mare Nostrum once did. The agency isn’t new to Italy, of course, and has been working with the authorities there since 2006, deploying technical equipment and additional border guards, as well as screeners and debriefers (the staff responsible for assessing the situation of migrants who arrive, and who determine what should happen to them next).

"Triton was a significantly strengthened version of this," says Cooper. "We launched it because of the situation in the Mediterranean. Last year, we witnessed unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving in Italy."

The agency also has a legal obligation to conduct search-and-rescue operations. It would violate international law to allow boats identified as coming from North Africa to sink, and Cooper says that now the majority of cases Frontex works on in the Mediterranean involve these kinds of operations in some way or another.

"If we are talking about the maritime situation, if there are people in distress, there’s international convention that obliges whoever is at sea to save lives," adds Cooper.

Surveying the seas

Surveillance, too, is certainly part of it. Say, for example, a Frontex-affiliated plane spots what has been identified as a migrant-smuggling boat heading towards Italian territory. The local authorities are notified, and Frontex support dispatches a ship to register and accompany it to make sure nobody enters the country undetected. The agency’s job is not to detain people or decide whether they have a right to stay, but to make sure that everyone entering Italy is accounted for.

"They are then intercepted and arrested, and this is where the identification process starts: they are fingerprinted, their rights to remain are analysed, and those who ask for asylum will obviously go through those procedures," says Cooper. "It is then the national authorities that decide whether they have the right to stay on European territory or not.

"If we are talking about the maritime situation, if there are people in distress, there’s international convention that obliges whoever is at sea to save lives." 

"Basically, this is what border control is about – surveillance, border checks, assessing the validity of the passport or visa, authenticity of the documents, and checking for any victims of trafficking."

Because smugglers increasingly put all migrants on unseaworthy boats without functioning engines or navigational systems, and often do not provide them with lifejackets (which take up space that could otherwise be sold as tickets), it’s very common for the boats to start sinking almost as soon as they leave shore, and this is where Frontex rushes in, gets the migrants off the boat and escorts the vessel to port.

"They’re so overcrowded that many of them start taking to the water soon after departure," says Cooper. "I can’t give you the exact number, but we’re talking about virtually all cases that require search and rescue."

Part of Triton, too, is linked to the EU’s plans to tackle people-smuggling at its root by breaking up the criminal networks that cram desperate migrants into run-down boats in the first place. This will involve collaborating with non-EU "countries of origin", as Cooper calls them, on Europe’s borders. Frontex’s debriefers, who speak to migrants detained by the agency upon their arrival in Europe, play a key role in developing intelligence on the illicit groups involved.

"We do not have the mandate to conduct investigations, but we share the information with the Italian authorities, and then eventually with Europol," she says. "Looking at what happens beyond the borders is crucial here."

The flow of migrants seeking refuge in Europe doesn’t look to slow down any time soon, and Frontex faces an increasing challenge in balancing its surveillance mandate with its role as the de facto search-and-rescue operation for the Mediterranean. But Triton remains underfunded, running on fewer resources than the far-from-perfect Mare Nostrum operation enjoyed. In an urgent situation, work is being expanded, and more and more migrants are arriving safely in Italy every day, at least for the time being.

Helping hand

Since the beginning of the crisis in April, EU states have contributed a range of high-class vessels. The Royal Navy, for one, contributed HMS Bulwark, an assault ship, before announcing its withdrawal from Triton in mid-April. French vessel the Commandant Birot, part of a class of ship designed for high-sea escort missions, has also participated in search-and-rescue operations, and Germany has contributed one frigate and ten ships to the efforts.