How Migrants Rescued the Italian Navy

The maritime force has parlayed its role on the front lines of Europe’s migration crisis into a high tide of popularity and funding.

The Italian Navy ship "Vega" arrives with more than 600 migrants and refugees on May 29, 2016 in the port of Reggio Calabria, southern Italy. A week of shipwrecks and death in the Mediterranean culminated today with harrowing testimony from migrant survivors who said another 500 people including 40 children had drowned, bringing the number of feared dead to 700.  / AFP / GIOVANNI ISOLINO        (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)
The Italian Navy ship "Vega" arrives with more than 600 migrants and refugees on May 29, 2016 in the port of Reggio Calabria, southern Italy. A week of shipwrecks and death in the Mediterranean culminated today with harrowing testimony from migrant survivors who said another 500 people including 40 children had drowned, bringing the number of feared dead to 700. / AFP / GIOVANNI ISOLINO (Photo credit should read GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images)

With the possible exception of Germany and Sweden’s overwhelmed immigration agencies, few institutions on the front lines of the migrant crisis have played a more prominent role than the Italian Navy.

Every day, its ships and sailors rescue dozens — sometimes hundreds — of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean in leaky, overcrowded vessels. Over the course of the past year, the Italian Navy rescued 47,335 men and women in trouble at sea, according to Defense Ministry statistics. On May 6, Italian sailors rescued nearly 1,800 within 24 hours; on one day in August last year, they rescued 3,000 — and then they made sure to tweet about it.

Italy has taken the lead among European nations in rescuing migrants trying to make the dangerous crossing from North Africa, which last week may have claimed as many as 700 lives. And somewhere along the way, the Navy has managed to parlay these rescues into a popularity boost: one that has turned sailors into heroes and helped the maritime services secure funding for long into the future.

In the funding package, approved last year, Italy’s government granted the Navy €5.4 billion for new vessels. The funding was approved with very little opposition, with only the Five Star Movement — an anti-establishment protest party — voting against it, “thanks to canny lobbying by the head of the Navy and by focusing politicians’ attention on the need to save thousands of migrants sailing across the Mediterranean from North Africa,” reported Defense News.

By contrast, there has been plenty of opposition to buying additional F-35 fighter jets for the Italian Air Force. (In 2012, the government cut back on the number of aircraft it planned on purchasing.) “People’s attitude was, what do you want these planes for? Do you want to bomb something?” said Fabrizio Coticchia, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Genoa and co-author of Venus in Arms, a blog about Italian defense.

“Italian public opinion is usually opposed to acquisitions of military equipment deemed to be offensive, but Italians like humanitarian operations,” said Coticchia.

The Navy has made efforts to draw attention to its sailors’ valiant efforts on the high seas, providing a steady stream of photos on social media and making videos available to news media. It has its own YouTube channel, too, where this month it shared a dramatic video of a migrant ship capsizing. (Of the more than 500 souls aboard, the Italian Navy was able to rescue nearly all.) The institution has also made a point of using the media to emphasize its new role: in an interview with the newspaper La Repubblica this month, for example, Adm. Enrico Credendino, the commander of the EU’s Mediterranean anti-smuggling operation known as Operation Sophia, stressed the emphasis on saving lives: “At sea there is only one law: if you’re in difficulty you’re rescued,” he said.

And polling data shows it’s working. Public attitudes toward the institution are overwhelmingly positive: According to a recent poll by the Eurispes institute, more Italians than ever — 75.4 percent — say they respect the Navy. The Navy’s Twitter account, @ItalianNavy, has 33,000 followers.

The popularity of the Navy may be in part due to what the migrant crisis symbolizes to Italians. Those coming on boats aren’t just people in need of rescue from dangerous waters; they’re a reminder of the growing dangers in the Mediterranean. Those dangers include both jihadists and smugglers who traffic in people, arms, and narcotics. “[I]n southern Europe the main threat comes from North Africa and the Middle East,” says Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO. “To protect ourselves against those threats, we need to control the Mediterranean, and that means a strong Navy.”

With or without the recent wave of migrants, the Navy would have had to replace parts of its aging fleet — many of its vessels are approaching two decades of service and some have been working since the 1970s. But the new funding allows it to do so faster and more efficiently. And lobbying efforts for the package weren’t hurt by the fact that, with Italy’s unemployment rate at 12.7 percent last summer, politicians welcomed labor-intensive activity like shipbuilding, said Giampaolo Di Paola, Italy’s defense minister just before the naval investment program, who has also served as the Italian military’s chief of staff and chairman of NATO’s defense committee. The Italian shipbuilding industry is Europe’s second-largest after Germany but has been in a slump ever since the 2008 global financial crash.

The public support, and politicians’ solid backing, are in some ways an unexpected turn of events. Naval forces all over the world suffer from the “lontano dall’occhio, lontano dal cuore” phenomenon: they’re far from average citizens’ eyes, and thus far from their hearts. Or as sailors like to say, land-dwellers suffer from sea blindness. By contrast, armies’ soldiers and their equipment are a common presence among civilians; the air force, for its part, enjoys regular interaction with the population through air shows and sporting event flyovers.

Before the crisis erupted two years ago, the Italian Navy spent most of its time in faraway destinations, including Haiti and the Gulf of Aden, while rescue efforts were left to the Coast Guard (which in Italy operates as part of the Navy). Under ordinary circumstances, coast guards are responsible for search and rescue, as most boats get into trouble relatively close to shore.

But the crisis, and the post-Arab Spring Middle East, has radically changed Italy’s security situation. The country is not only engaged in search-and-rescue operations: Italy will take the lead on a NATO mission, expected to be approved at the alliance’s Warsaw Summit this July, that aims to stop migrants from using Libya as a launch pad to get to Europe. “All of a sudden it’s possible for people to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats, not just large vessels,” said Stefanini. “The Mediterranean is like Europe’s moat, and in this new situation it’s no longer enough to patrol the coast; you need to patrol international waters too. That means bringing in the Navy.”

The Italian Navy was a sizable force during the Cold War, when it was seen as a crucial component of NATO’s front against the Warsaw Pact, tasked with defending the alliance’s southeastern border against a Soviet invasion. The Marina Militare operated not just assault ships and destroyers but small aircraft carriers and submarines.

But once the Cold War ended, the Italian military’s fortunes turned. Like most European armed forces, it saw its budget cut, in Italy’s case from 2.3 percent of GDP in 1990 to 2 percent in 2000 and 1.3 percent in 2015, according to statistics from SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But while the Italian Air Force and especially the Army still have to economize, last year the Navy received unprecedented governmental largesse with the €5.4 billion funding package. That’s partly because security issues in Mediterranean countries have shifted from land to water. “In the nineties, the focus was on land-based defense, but today it’s maritime security,” noted Vice Adm. Ferdinando Sanfelice di Monteforte, a former commander of NATO’s naval forces in southern Europe and Italian military representative to NATO.

The Italian Navy vessels currently patrolling the Mediterranean include 10 ships, two of which are frigates, assigned to search-and-rescue and anti-smuggling operations. Italian vessels also patrol the waters off Libya, as do four Italian submarines, which according to Italian news media monitor jihadist communications.

The Navy’s newly ordered vessels include seven multi-purpose offshore patrol ships — which are particularly suited to search and rescue — a logistics support ship, and two high-speed multi-role vessels for special operations. Most of the vessels will be made by Fincantieri, the state-owned Italian shipbuilder. But the new acquisitions won’t limit the sailors to non-warfare missions like migrant search and rescue, said Di Paola: “The Navy needs a more modern and balanced fleet, and the construction plan meets those requirements.”

The new vessels will be delivered between 2021 and 2026 — by which point, of course, the migrant crisis may already be over. But the Italian Navy’s resurgence will be in full force.

Photo credit: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images

Elisabeth Braw directs the Modern Deterrence project at the Royal United Services Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola