Each disaster involving desperate immigrants fuels the debate over measures to prevent people from dying at sea, and each time the measures come up wanting.
Last year broke records, with 170,000 arrivals on Italy’s shores: 2015 is forecast to exceed that.
The Italian Interior Minister reports that the more than 3,500 immigrants who arrived last month represented a 40 percent year-on-year increase. There were 3,200 deaths at sea last year.
Alarmed Italy has been fervently calling for help from its European Union partners for years.
In autumn 2013, a sinking off the coast of the Italian Island of Lampedusa, about 113 kilometres from Tunisia, and one off Malta together claimed almost 400 lives.
Rome’s response was to redouble its efforts, launching Operation Mare Nostrum
that October. It staffed it and paid for it all, estimating it saved 150,000 lives.
Critics said it encouraged more people to attempt the Mediterranean crossing.
In the end, Italy couldn’t afford it. It had spent around nine million euros per month, or a total of 114 million euros by the time it abandoned Mare Nostrum last October.
The European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström announced a plan to enhance Frontex, the EU agency that manages cooperation to keep the bloc’s external borders secure.
Malmström said: “The Frontex Plus operation will substitute, take over Mare Nostrum, even if it will not be to the same extent. Mare Nostrum has been a very ambitious operation and we don’t know if we can find the means to do exactly what Italy has done.”
Then the plan — with only a third of the budget of the Italian operation — was redubbed Operation Triton.
Its 2.9 million euro monthly budget since last November has gone towards two open sea vessels, four patrol boats, two planes and a helicopter, used in rotation by staff from 19 participating EU countries.
Triton hugs close to the Italian coast instead of reaching toward Africa like Mare Nostrum did. Its vessels are smaller and fewer.
The human rights defence body the Council of Europe has called for a well-resourced European rescue initiative, creating migration alternatives and more efforts against smuggling.