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Italy ran an operation that saved thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. Why did it stop?

Migrants sit in a boat during a rescue operation by Italian navy off the coast of the south of the Italian island of Sicily in this November 28, 2013 picture provided by the Italian Marina Militare. About 350 migrants, who were travelling in four separate boats were rescued on Thursday in the operation called Mare Nostrum, Italian navy said. Picture taken November 28. REUTERS/Marina Militare/Handout via Reuters
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Back in October 2013, more than 300 migrants died near the Italian island of Lampedusa. These men and women had been trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean from Libya to what they saw as a land of opportunity, Europe. Instead, their boat sank and they drowned. The Italian coast guard was only able to save 150 or so passengers on a boat that was carrying around 500.

The Italian public was shocked. Migrants had died in the Mediterranean before, but this was exceptional. Shortly afterwards, the Italian government swung into action and set up Mare Nostrum, a vast search-and-rescue operation aimed at preventing the deaths of the thousands of migrants who make the journey from Africa to Europe every year.

Mare Nostrum – which means "Our Sea" in Latin, the name for the Mediterranean in the Roman era – was a success. With a considerable budget of $12 million a month, it was estimated to have saved more than 130,000 people. It was not only a rescue operation. Italy, a country once known for hard attitudes to migrants, offered medical treatment, shelter and food. Migrants were even offered legal aid that could have helped them gain asylum.

It didn't last. By October 2014, Mare Nostrum was being wound down.

"Mare Nostrum is closing down because it was an emergency operation," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano explained at the time. The European Union border agency Frontex instead set up a new project known as Triton, but made clear that it was not to be viewed as a replacement – with an estimated monthly budget of $3.6 million, it was a decidedly modest affair compared to Italy's vast venture.

This weekend, less than a year later, a tragedy occurred in the Mediterranean that dwarfed the Lampedusa shipwreck that sparked Mare Nostrum. A ship that may have been carrying as many as 950 people sunk some 120 miles south of Lampedusa. Nearby ships were barely able to save a few dozen.

In the face of this new disaster, it's worth asking why a project as widely praised as Mare Nostrum folded so quickly. The conclusions aren't pretty.

First, consider the strains placed on Italy by such a wide-ranging project. According to Agence France Presse, a total of 32 boats took part in Mare Nostrum, with additional help from a submarine, planes and helicopters. This was a considerable military expense for a country forced to tighten its belt and make significant cuts to military spending in recent years.

And while Italy had some support from smaller Mediterranean powers like Malta, Europe's big players often ruled out help. "We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean," Britain's Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay said last year. "We believe that they create an unintended 'pull factor,' encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths."

There certainly does appear to have been a rise in the number of migrants making the journey across the Mediterranean in the past few years, though whether that is a direct result of expanded search-and-rescue operations is hard to prove. According to the latest figures from the United Nations' refugee agency, 950 migrants have died in the Mediterranean so far this year, a vast increase over the 50 who died in the same period last year.

However, the more cynical may note that the Mare Nostrum had appeared to legitimize migrants attempts to get to Europe. And, as The Post's Anthony Faiola noted last year, Italy seemed to turn a blind eye as the migrants escaped Italian borders and were able to travel in other Schengen Area nations. Critics of the Mare Nostrum logic suggested that terrorists might exploit Italy's lenient attitudes. That fear may have become more pronounced as an affiliate of the Islamic State made its intentions to reach Italy clear this year.

On Sunday, after the most recent tragedy in the Mediterranean, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said that Italy alone couldn't deal with the issue of migrants. "We are asking not to be left alone," Renzi told reporters. The next day, European Union officials announced a 10-point plan for Mediterranean migrants and the problems that spur them to take their dangerous journeys.

See also

The Islamic State threatens to come to Rome; Italians respond with travel advice

Amid flood of refugees to Europe, Italy opens a back door

Is Europe finally waking up to the deaths of hundreds of drowned migrants?