On February 10, 2015 several hundred African migrants died off the coast of Italy while seeking refuge in the European country, marking one of the most significant losses of migrants’ lives at sea and simultaneously signaling the challenge the EU faces in coping with huge inflows of refugees. On October 3, 2013, 366 Eritrean nationals died when their vessel sunk close to the shores of Lampedusa (Italy). International public outrage, indignation, and dissent over the deaths, led to an appeal for a new strategy to address the issue. Mare Nostrum, the Italian refugee relocation project,was designed to patrol the Italian coasts and rescue vessels trafficking immigrants across the Mediterranean. While this project has saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants in just over a year, it has also put an exhausting strain on Italy's finances, costing approximately 9 million Euros per month.

On February 10, 2015 several hundred African migrants died off the coast of Italy while seeking refuge in the European country, marking one of the most significant losses of migrants’ lives at sea and simultaneously signaling the challenge the EU faces in coping with huge inflows of refugees.

Sadly, the February 10 tragedy was not unique. On October 3, 2013, 366 Eritrean nationals died when their vessel sunk close to the shores of Lampedusa (Italy). International public outrage, indignation, and dissent over the deaths, led to an appeal for a new strategy to address the issue. Mare Nostrum, the Italian refugee relocation project, was designed to patrol the Italian coasts and rescue vessels trafficking immigrants across the Mediterranean. While this project has saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants in just over a year, it has also put an exhausting strain on Italy's finances, costing approximately 9 million Euros per month.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2014 thirty-eight European countries recorded 264,000 asylum applications; an increase of 24 percent compared to the same period in 2013. While 216,300 of these applications were spread between 28 EU Member States, Italy alone received more than 140,000 of these refugees. Moreover, according to the European Commissioner for Migration, since the beginning of January 2015, more than 5,600 migrants have been rescued from the sea and the number of people seeking refugee status will continue to climb in 2015, driven by the conflicts in the Middle East and instability in Northern Africa.

Greater cooperation is required among European countries to avoid the deepening of this humanitarian crisis, and thus far the European Union has been very naïve in its approach towards immigration.

On October 7, 2014 EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom announced Triton, an operation "tailored to the needs and requests of Italian authorities" with the objective of relieving Italy of its migratory burden, while at the same time reinforcing surveillance and promoting humanitarian efforts. In November, Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano gave notice that Mare Nostrum would begin a progressive decommissioning process ending in January 2015, de facto transferring all authority to the Commission. 

The introduction of Triton seemed to highlight greater investment on the part of Europe’s leaders to resolve the issue of maritime surveillance. However, the project cannot sustain the objectives it has set out for itself, and Triton’s failure can be traced directly to numbers, where its budget fails to align with the increased immigration patterns.

The monthly cost of Mare Nostrum was equal to 9 million Euros, leading to a total of cost 114 million Euros in 2014 alone. While this cost included an EU contribution of 1.8 million Euros, Mare Nostrum was essentially an Italian economic effort. For Triton, Frontex (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union) is predicted to contribute 5.8 million Euros for 2014, with 2.9 million Euros provided monthly for November and December. These figures would amount to an annual cost of only 35 million Euros, and the program glaringly lacks provisions that would allow rescue operations to be carried out in international waters, unlike with Mare Nostrum. The result is a program that is grossly underfunded and lacks the capacity to do what is necessary.

Numerous humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International and Emergency, have condemned Mare Nostrum's interruption, emphasizing how essential its implementation was to safeguard migrants' lives along the Mediterranean coast; this is simply not a priority for Triton. However, even more troubling yet is the reflection on Triton’s budget and how it fails to perform even its most basic function—to safeguard Europe’s maritime borders. 

The EU’s failure could not have been better expressed than through the words of Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner for Migration, who, in reaction to the February 11th events, said, “Europe needs to manage migration better, in all aspects. And this is above all a humanitarian imperative. We need a new and comprehensive approach to migration. We need a European solution.”

It is ironic how European Union governments and bureaucrats are scandalized by the conditions and management of maritime immigration in Italy and Spain, and yet they refuse to seriously address the issue. It is also more disconcerting to see how the European Union has sustained a foreign policy pattern, by which it acts only after a crisis has already sprung.

As the maritime immigration crisis places increased pressures on Italy and Spain, and as the volume of displaced refugees from North Africa and the Middle East rises, one can only hope that the events of February 10 bring impetus to finding a true European solution to this humanitarian crisis, one that focuses not only on border protection, but also on safeguarding the lives of the refugees who have been forced from their homes. A solution that reconfirms EU leaders’ commitment to the principles of human rights, cooperation and stability, and ultimately encourages strength and security along all of Europe’s borders.