Demanding efforts despite fewer migrants crossing the Mediterranean

Compared to last year, the first few months of the year saw a 70 per cent decrease in the number of migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean, where the Swedish Coast Guard and the police deploy crews during the winter months.

Border surveillance at sea is the primary remit of the Swedish crews, and we are authorised to take action to prevent smuggling of people and drugs. Our work is coordinated by Frontex and led by the authorities in the host country, in this case Italy. Migrants are detained on land by the Italian authorities, who register and interview them and investigate each individual’s options for remaining in the EU.

At least a hundred nautical miles across the sea

Recent weeks have seen the number of migrants increasing again as the weather has been calmer, but the voyage of at least a hundred nautical miles across the Mediterranean is often very unsafe. Under international law, all ships are obliged to assist in rescues at sea, including our crews.

“We’re always on alert, all situations are emergencies. We need to be vigilant, whether we’re towing the migrants’ boats to shore or allowing them to board our RIB,” says Helén. She is a member of a crew consisting of three Swedes and an Italian liaison officer, whose job is to liaise with the Italian authorities.

A particularly demanding operation took place on Saturday, 16 March. One of the Frontex surveillance helicopters alerted the crew to a steel boat that was motionless in the middle of the sea, inside the EU’s external border.

“When we got there, we saw that the boat was completely overloaded with people and the freeboard was just one decimetre. There were men, women and children on board. We came up alongside their boat and loaded the children onto our boat first,” says Helén.

Migrant boat sank

When the migrants started moving, their boat quickly took on water and sank.

“It all happened very fast. Our boat was listing heavily, too. It was very unpleasant for a while, but then our boat straightened up. People were hanging from the fenders and each other, and we managed to get everyone out of the water.”

The helicopter came to the rescue after Niklas, the commanding officer, sent out a mayday. It made several sweeps of the area to make sure there was nobody else in the water. A total of 59 people were transported to Lampedusa.

“Everybody really helped out. Our liaison officer on board, whom we've worked with several times in the past, and the three of us from Sweden are a very close-knit team. We can work without having to talk to one another. Being on a Frontex mission is incredibly stimulating, it’s really added a different dimension to the work we do that we can use at home,” concludes Helén.

RIB KBV 475 is full of migrants after their boat sank. Photo: Frontex.

Many migrants turn up in steel boats that are in very poor condition. Photo: The Swedish Coast Guard.

Facts

Operation Themis, an operation that Sweden is participating in during the winter months of 2023–24, is a Frontex operation in the Central Mediterranean. Sweden is assisting Italian border guards on the island of Lampedusa by providing RIB KBV 475 and crews. A total of sixteen people from the Swedish Coast Guard and the Swedish Police Authority are working in Italy.

Frontex is the EU’s joint border and coastal surveillance agency, and its job is to coordinate operations at Europe’s sea, land and air borders. The Swedish units are led by host country authorities and are part of operations coordinated by Frontex.

The Central Mediterranean route, which includes Lampedusa, was the busiest route for migrants to the EU in 2023. 158,000 people were reported as having arrived via that route in 2023, but a 70 per cent decrease in the use of this route is reported for January and February this year compared to the same months last year.

The Swedish crews have escorted more than a thousand migrants to Lampedusa since the mission began in October 2023.

Changed 29 April 2024 16:13