Italy ends Mare Nostrum - operation Triton comes in to force

Refugees and Migrants

Published: 3 November 2014

The development

Members will be aware of the significant continuing situation in the Mediterranean involving a mass movement of people via North Africa and towards Europe.

Up until now Italy has been responding to this situation with its operation "Mare Nostrum", but this is now coming to an end and will be replaced by the European Union's Border Agency (Frontex) operation "Triton".

This is a potentially significant change and members traversing the Mediterranean should be aware of the following so that they can continue to be prepared for the significant chance of encountering distressed persons at sea.

Mare Nostrum

Italy started operation "Mare Nostrum" on 18 October 2013 immediately after the mass casualties that occurred off Lampedusa on 3 October 2013, an incident where more than 300 persons are believed to have perished. The operation was intended to last one year.

It is estimated that during this time over 150,000 persons were rescued from the sea, but that over 3,500 people drowned in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

The operation had a significant remit based on humanitarian grounds, which saw the Italian Navy launch rescue operations far out at sea and away from the immediate shores of Italy.

"Mare Nostrum" has now come to an end.


The EU Agency Frontex has now started the replacement operation called "Triton".

It will no longer involve just the Italian Navy, but will be a force made up of resources from several member states including two ocean going ships, two coastal patrol vessels, two coast guard vessels, two planes and one helicopter.

The remit of this operation is different, in that it is more coast / border protection undertaking and will be focused towards the protection of the EU's coastal area. Overall this operation has fewer resources and funding than "Mare Nostrum".

The response to the situation in the Mediterranean has become a high profile political matter in the European Union.

Co-operation with Triton

The change over in operations is a very new development, occurring on the weekend of 1 and 2 November 2014, and members will need to closely follow up on how this new operation will work in practice.

There is, however, no change to the basic obligation on vessels to assist in saving life at sea and should a vessel be contacted by "Triton" / Frontex or the Italian authorities and be asked to assist in a rescue operation then it is recommended that co-operation be extended just as it was under "Mare Nostrum".

Duty to save life at sea

With respect to a vessel's duty to safe life at sea, the Association would like to reiterate the following based on International Convention:

  • 1982 UNCLOS provides that "Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him" (Art 98.1)
  • 1974 SOLAS provides that "The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found" (Chapter V, Regulation 33.1)

Duties of the coastal state

There are several conventions, to which Italy is a party, that compel coastal states to assist in saving persons at sea, in particular:

  • 1982 UNCLOS provides that "Every coastal State shall promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search and rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea and, where circumstances so require, by way of mutual regional arrangements cooperate with neighbouring States for this purpose" (Art. 98.2);
  • 1974 SOLAS provides that "Each Contracting Government undertakes to ensure that necessary arrangements are made for distress communication and co-ordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coasts. These arrangements shall include the establishment, operation and maintenance of such search and rescue facilities as are deemed practicable and necessary, having regard to the density of the seagoing traffic and the navigational dangers and shall, so far as possible, provide adequate means of locating and rescuing such persons" (Chapter V, Regulation7);
  • 1979 SAR provides that States member shall "ensure that assistance be provided to any person in distress at sea. They shall do so regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found" (part 2.1.10) and to "provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety" (part 1.3.2).

Furthermore under IMO Resolution MSC 167 (78), it is provided that:

  • "The responsibility to provide a place of safety, or to ensure that a place of safety is provided, falls on the Government responsible for the SAR region in which the survivors were recovered" (ยง 2.5), and;
  • although a Vessel may be considered a place of safety, "an assisting ship should not be considered a place of safety based solely on the fact that the survivors are no longer in immediate danger once aboard the ship. An assisting ship may not have appropriate facilities and equipment to sustain additional persons on board without endangering its own safety or to properly care for the survivors. Even if the ship is capable of safely accommodating the survivors and may serve as a temporary place of safety, it should be relieved of this responsibility as soon as alternative arrangements can be made" (clause 6.3) and
  • "a ship should not be subject to undue delay, financial burden or other related difficulties after assisting persons at sea; therefore coastal States should relieve the ship as soon as practicable".

Recommendations for ships and masters

If a master of a member's vessel finds persons in distress at sea, it is recommended that the vessel contact immediately the Italian Rescue Coordination Centre of the Coast Guard or Operation "Triton".

It will be helpful if, when reporting, the master can advise as much of the following information as may be available:

  • the name, IMO number, flag and place of registry of the vessel
  • full contact details of the vessel and its managers
  • present position of the vessel
  • number of persons found (including gender and general ages, men, women, elderly, children, babies)
  • where persons have been found / how the vessel found them
  • the precise co-ordinates of the persons found
  • status / health of rescued persons
  • actions taken so far
  • any immediate assistance needs (say emergency medical assistance)
  • vessel's original heading and destination
  • a request for details from the RCC / Frontex as to where the rescued persons should be disembarked

Being prepared

The Association recently advised members about the detailed advice and guidance that had been prepared by the Norwegian Shipowner's Association: Rescued pesons on the high seas.

The Association would again repeat this advice and recommend that shipowners and managers develop response plans for any vessel that is likely to proceed through the Mediterranean in the near future. This includes having equipment, stores and provisions on board as well as briefing the crew on the situation and ensuring they are aware of the chance that they may be asked to assist in a rescue operation.

Further information on the present situation can be found in the Loss prevention bulletin: Mediterranean refugees.

To date Skuld member vessels are estimated to have assisted, both directly and indirectly, in the rescue of several thousand people.

The Association is grateful to its correspondents in Italy as well as Studio Legale Berlingieri for contributing to this update. 

Refugees in the Mediterranean
Source: BBC