Tragedy in the Mediterranean.
On 22 August the Corpo delle Capitanerie di porto-Guardia Costiera (GC Italian Coastguard) had its busiest, although one of its more successful days, since the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea erupted in 2013. The refugees are often fleeing the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya, and violence perpetrated by the Al-Mourabitoun, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb and Ansar Dine Islamist insurgent groups operating the Sahel region of north Africa, abutting the southern Sahara Desert. Those fleeing the violence make their escape by paying organised criminal gangs of people traffickers thousands of dollars to travel across the Mediterranean in boats which are frequently dangerously overcrowded in the hope of finding sanctuary in Europe.
The operation on 22 August discussed above involving the CG was the biggest one-day rescue conducted so far with numerous vessels participating in the efforts. After receiving distress calls from more than 20 different overcrowded boats that had left the Libyan coast the previous evening, Italy's coast guard coordinated the rescue of 3000 or so refugees over the following 24 hours. The two Marina Militaire (Italian Navy) vessels at the centre of the rescue, the 'Commandante' class Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Cigala Fulgosi and the 'Cassiopea' class OPV Vega, picked up 507 and 432 refugees respectively from two wooden boats that were close to sinking. Other ships in the areas were also tasked with picking up refugees and taking them to Italian ports, including a ship belonging to the Non-Government Organisation (NGO) Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) as well as the Norwegian civilian Siem Pilot offshore supply vessel.
In 2014, over 170,000 refugees made the journey successfully to Italy from the north African coast after completing this hazardous crossing, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body providing humanitarian assistance for refugees around the world. By the end of August 2015 this was approaching 110,000 with another 130,000 having reached Greece, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which works to support and protect refugees. Estimates give the total of those who have lost their lives making this crossing as over 2300 refugees so far during 2015, according to the IOM.
According to the Agence France Presse (AFP/French Press Agency) news organisation, traffickers have been demanding around $2300 per person for the journey from Egypt to Italy. The misery for those seeking a new life does not stop there with crews onboard boats demanding extra payments from people squeezed below decks to come up for fresh air. According to a report by human rights NGO Amnesty International this May, gangs involved in the trafficking of refugees routinely torture and rape refugees unable to pay ransoms for other refugees, often family members, who are abducted en route in order to extort more money from the refugees. Other refugees are abducted by the traffickers and sold into sexual slavery.
At the end of October 2014 Italy announced the end of its monthly $10 million Operation MARE NOSTRUM (Our Sea) mission to rescue refugees which had commenced on 18 October 2013 in the wake of a boat sinking off the Italian island of Lampedusa which claimed the lives of over 360 refugees. Italy's cancellation was reportedly because of cost concerns, with the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi accusing the European Union (EU) of failing to provide adequate funds for Italy to shoulder the responsibility of rescuing refugees making their way across the Mediterranean.
Operation MARE NOSTRUM was replaced by Operation TRITON which commenced on 1 November 2014. Operation TRITON falls under the auspices of the EUs FRONTEX (Frontieres Exterieures/External Borders) agency which coordinates border security efforts across the European Union. Nevertheless, unlike the Italian mission that had covered 20408 square nautical miles (70000 square kilometres) of the Mediterranean, Operation TRITON would only cover an area of sea 26 nautical miles (48.2 kilometres) from the Italian coast. Moreover, the budget for Triton was only one third of that for Operation MARE NOSTRUM at $3.2 million per month.
Rather than replicating Operation MARE NOSTRUM, which carried out proactive Search And Rescue (SAR) across the 20408 square nautical miles of sea, Operation TRITON focuses on border surveillance. Beyond Italy, other nations have been reluctant to deploy assets to the region to provide humanitarian assistance. On 28 October 2014, the UK's home secretary (interior minister) Theresa May defended the decision of her government to end the Royal Navy deployment to support refugee SAR efforts in the Mediterranean, stating that such endeavours were acting as a "pull factor," encouraging more refugees to make the dangerous sea crossing from north Africa. Nevertheless, despite the slimmed down nature of Operation TRITON compared to Operation MARE NOSTRUM (see above), the refugees have kept coming. One of the worst months was April 2015 when an estimated 1236 refugees died and went missing following four separate incidents involving massively overcrowded boats, according to several media reports.
On 23 April a summit meeting held in Brussels by the foreign and interior ministers of the EU member states agreed to mobilise forces to prevent loss of life at sea after so many refugees had drowned in a short period. The four action areas agreed at the summit were to strengthen the EUs presence at sea, fight the traffickers, prevent illegal refugee flows, and reinforce internal 'solidarity and responsibility'. This translates as the EU supporting United Nations-led attempts to re-establish the authority of the Libyan government. Following the ousting and death of Libya's dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on 23 August 2011, Libya has been unable to form a single government, and a civil war is ongoing involving several competing armed factions.
In addition to the goals agreed at the 23 April summit meeting discussed above, on 22 June the Council of the EU which represents the executive branches of the EU member states' governments launched its own naval operation to deliberately target the traffickers who are exploiting the flow of refugees into Mediterranean waters. Called EUNAVFOR Med (EU naval force Mediterranean) its mission is "to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by refugee smugglers or traffickers." Federica Mogherini, who is responsible for coordinating the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy, said that the operation will target "the business model of those who benefit from the misery of refugees."
Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino of the Italian Navy was given operational command of EUNAVFOR Med from the force's headquarters in Rome, with the sea force commander named as Rear Admiral Andrea Gueglio. Costs are estimated at $13.3 million for its two-month activation period, and it is expected to perform an initial twelve months of operation.
The initial phase of EUNAVFOR Med will largely be to conduct surveillance and assessment of the trafficking networks along the southern central Mediterranean. This will progress to a search and the potential seizure of target vessels (phase two). Phase three involves the disposal of such vessels and associated assets as well as the detainment of those identified in such trafficking operations. Phase one is now underway. Sources close to the operation told Armada that the exact timings of each phase of the operation are not fixed. Instead, the military command of EUNAVFOR Med will recommend when they believe the circumstances warrant the transition to operation's next phase, with the Council of the EU then taking the decision to order this course of action.
The vessels allocated to EUNAVFOR Med will depend on national force contributions and the frequent rotation of such warships. The Italian Navy's aircraft carrier Cavour is the flagship and, following her departure to commence her mission on 27 June 2015, is acting as the command centre for the accompanying task force being able to accommodate over 100 multinational staff members and specialist team personnel. Other task force members include two Deutsche Marine (German Navy) warships, the 'Brandenburg' class frigate Schleswig-Holstein and the 'Elbe' class underway replenishment ship Werra. Other assets include an Aeronavale (French Naval Aviation) Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) in the shape of a Dassault Aviation Falcon-50M which joined operations on 3 July. Operated by the 24F Flotilla located at Lann Bihoue airbase north-western France, the jet has been able to share the reconnaissance data it gathers using its Thales Chlio optronics sensors and Ocean Master-100 radar with the control centre onboard the Cavour (see above).
Reversing the UK governments previous decision to end its efforts to assist refugee SAR operations in the Mediterranean on 28 October 2014, in support of Operation MARE NOSTRUM (see above) the Royal Navy sent one of its 'Echo' class hydrographic vessels, HMS Enterprise to assist EUNAVOR Med in late June. Although more often used for oceanographic survey the ship has advanced navigation and communication systems, and is based in Valetta Harbour, Malta.
On July 18 2015, Luxemburg added to the assembling force by sending a Swearingen SW3 Merlin-III turboprop MPA. According to EUNAVFOR Med, this MPA detachment had been operating from the Seychelles since 2009 as part of the EU's contribution to anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia as part of its Opera tion ATALANTA. Assisting the EUNAVFOR Med force it will operate from Sigonella airbase on the island of Sicily.
During the first few months of EUNAVFOR Med over 1100 refugees were saved. On 19 August the Werra rescued 105 refugees from a boat in distress 17.2nm (31.8km) off the Libyan city of Tripoli. Four days earlier the operation assisted the rescue of 103 people in similar circumstances after being alerted by the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC).
The task of recovering refugees who have been in danger of drowning at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers has not all been the remit of military forces. One Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that is more usually associated with military tasks is Schiebel's S-100 Camcopter. This aircraft has more recently been employed by an organisation established by husband and wife humanitarians Christopher and Regina Catrambone.
Following a move to the island of Malta in 2008, the couple were appalled when when hundreds of refugees were drowned near the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013 (see above). Their drive to help save lives quickly led to the founding of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). Operating from the MY Phoenix, the MOAS is a floating SAR base which works in cooperation with national coast guard authorities in the Mediterranean. Its stated task is to prevent loss of life by identifying vessels in trouble and working through official Rescue Coordination Centres (RCC) such as the IMRCC.
The MY Phoenix began its mission in 2014 and after discussions with the UAV industry decided to select two S-100 Camcopter UAVs to act as the ship's long-range aerial observation platforms from the end of the summer. MOAS' plans and operations manager Ian Ruggier said that the initial agreement was for 60 days with Schiebel's own operations team staying with the aircraft onboard the ship. Ultimately, the S-100s operated from the MY Phoenix between August and October 2014 conducting three operations in the central Mediterranean Sea. Each of these lasted between two and three weeks. The final deployment ended successfully with the rescue of 331 refugees although in total the vessel and its crew had picked up over 2800 refugees during their deployment.
Mr. Ruggier said that some type of aerial element for the operation had been envisaged from the beginning of the project so that the MY Phoenix could act as a self-sufficient SAR platform. With a speed of around 130 knots (240.7 kilometres-per-hour) and carrying robust day and night optronics, the S-100s could depart the ship to patrol the surrounding maritime area for several hours or go directly to investigate any particular craft in the water if requested to do so by the RCC.
In 2015, MOAS re-engaged Schiebel to provide the pair of S-100s for six months between 2 May and the end of October, the key operational period for the MOAS crew, due to the summer weather in the Mediterranean which traffickers exploit to send people across the water. Fund raising had helped keep the two S-100s and their specialist crew onboard the ship. However, this year Schiebel donated two months of operations to MOAS (September and October) which took some of the pressure off fundraising for the remaining four months. Donations have helped to keep the project funded with $1.6 million being raised up to the end of July (in addition to the Schiebel donation, $508,000 was received from members of the website avaaz. org and a further $282,000 from German fundraising efforts). This contributed to the continuing patronage and private financing provided by the Catrambones.
According to MOAS director Martin Xuereb, Schiebel's approach to the MOAS operation has been "supportive from the very beginning, helping MOAS become the first civilian organisation to use these (UAVs) for a great humanitarian purpose. Besides giving us a subsidised rate from the start, Schiebel has now generously offered two months of free use, a donation worth more than $688,783," he said. Hans Georg Schiebel, chairman and owner of Schiebel added, "With our combined efforts and the experience gained from the last mission, we will save even more lives this year. We at Schiebel are very proud and excited to support MOAS and its important rescue mission."
Mr. Ruggier explained that the S-100s are used in virtually all rescues. Flight operations are planned at the beginning of each day, although circumstances will often take-over and dictate the requirement once a rescue has been identified. "A flight operations brief will identify the proposed flying hours per sortie which in turn is determined by the effect that needs to be generated in terms of area covered," he said. "It is the routine patrolling which helps to generate our situational awareness and is crucial to detecting and locating potential vessels of interest that may require assistance."
The optronics onboard the S-100 deliver real-time imagery to the ship's operations room and allow the crew to relay information to the RCC regarding any vessel that they have either found themselves or have been tasked to investigate. "Typically two routine patrols per day are planned with the total flight time not exceeding eight hours," explained Mr. Ruggier. This plan changes once a specific task is received from the RCC. On receipt of such instructions, an S-100 will be launched and guided to the target vessel's last reported position and begin a search pattern. When the target is located the UAV loiters overhead and uses its optronics to send back imagery for the team to analyse." If the decision is then made that a rescue is required, the S-100 returns to the MY Phoenix so that it can be stowed to make room for rescued refugees who will be brought onboard ship and cared for on and below the flight deck. Since the MOAS operation began in 2014 the MOAS team have rescued over 5500 people from distress on the sea. The UAV operations have proved invaluable in terms of area search and rapid information-gathering to allow quick decision-making.
MOAS founder Christopher Catrambone summarised the motivation he and the crew of the MY Phoenix continue to have for the task at hand. "As the UNHCR said in a recent report (published in June), MOAS and several other private and state-run ships who responded to the crisis have contributed to a significant drop in the death toll. The reality is that there are never enough assets at sea but public pressure is vital for European countries to keep saving lives at sea." He added that the European public should not be "willing bystanders" while the crisis continued.
Indeed, the job continues. During the afternoon of 22 August, HMS Enterprise became a key element in the largest rescue operation involving EUNAVFOR Med so far. It rescued 453 refugees that were in difficulties on four separate craft. Twelve days earlier on 10 August the EU Commission, the executive body of the organisation responsible for proposing legislation and managing its day-to-day business, approved a tranche of $2.7 billion to be disbursed up to 2020 across 23 multi-year annual national programmes to assist EU member states in meeting the refugee crisis from the EU's common Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund. Countries at the forefront of the Mediterranean refugee crisis such as Italy and Greece which receive large numbers of refugees will receive a share of this funding to help assist their reception and care of those refugees who have made the journey and been lucky enough to survive.
Caption: The Italian Navy aircraft carrier Cavour on exercise prior to the commencement of EUNAVFOR Med with the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, seen here in the Gulf of Oman [c] US DoD
Caption: Refugees on the deck of the German Navy frigate Schleswig-Holstein after being transferred from the Royal Navy's HMS Enterprise following urgent rescue efforts launched to aid several vessels in distress in August 2015 [c] EUNAVOR
Caption: Luxembourg's Swearingen Merlin-IIIC maritime patrol aircraft detachment has joined the EUNAVFOR Med effort, for which it is now operating from Sigonella airbase in Sicily. Previously, this aircraft had assisted EUNAVFOR anti-piracy initiatives off the coast of Somalia [c] EUNAVOR
Caption: The Schiebel S-100 Camcopter is usually found being flown from the back of naval ships but here is seen on the flight deck of the privately owned MY Phoenix supporting refugee rescue efforts by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) [c] Schiebel
Caption: "We've found them!" The MOAS ship MY Phoenix about to take onboard another group of refugees in the southern Mediterranean. The work of MOAS and other non-government organisations have played a vital role in saving lives [c] MOAS
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.