LONDON - Refugee groups say thousands of lives will be at risk after Italy ended its migrant search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean Saturday. Codenamed "Mare Nostrum," the mission rescued hundreds of thousands of migrants over the past year who had left the north African coast in rickety boats aiming for European shores. The European Union has taken over the operation, but critics say it is much smaller in scale and poorly funded.
On the remote Italian island of Lampedusa - closer to Tunisia than Sicily - the arrival of dilapidated boats packed with hundreds of migrants is a near-daily occurrence.
Italy launched it's 'Mare Nostrum' operation a year ago after 500 migrants died off Lampedusa in October 2013 - forcing the government into action.
Italian coastguard and navy vessels backed by aircraft rescued an estimated 150,000 people in one year alone. It cost $11.9 million a month.
Footing the bill
The operation ended November 1. Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Rome could no longer foot the bill.
“The death toll is not proportional to the amount of euros spent,” he said. “We have carried out a mission of which we are proud, and which began as a time-limited mission. The area covered by this mission almost reached the North African coast.”
Italy has long complained that its European partners have offered far too little help in dealing with the migrant influx. An estimated 150,000 have crossed the Mediterranean this year alone. Over 2500 are known to have died in that period.
The European Union's border agency, Frontex, is taking over the rescue mission under the codename Triton. But it has a third of the resources and only covers up to 50 kilometers from Europe's shores.
Refugee and migrants support groups have strongly criticized the decision to end the rescue mission across the Mediterranean.
“There will be more dead at sea,” says Gunter Burkhardt is from the group Pro-Asyl in Germany. “Foreign ministers see the necessity to provide more aid, but the interior ministers of Europe do everything to seal off the borders for refugees, especially those from Syria.”
Enhanced cooperation needed
EU officials say member states have been slow in offering funding, personnel and equipment. Rafael Fernandez-Pita is Director General of the Council of the European Union.
“Member states alone, they cannot do it. Frontex alone, they cannot do it. So we need to cooperate, all of us together, to try and put a stop to this terrible drama,” said Rafael Fernandez-Pita, director general of the Council of the European Union.
Britain supported the termination of the Mare Nostrum rescue mission, saying that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean 'create an unintended 'pull factor', encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing.' Britain has offered just a single immigration officer for the new EU mission.
Europe says more must be done to tackle the traffickers who organize the treacherous crossings - charging between $1,500 and $3,500 for each migrant.
Among those attempting to cross are tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the civil war; alongside Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans and economic migrants from across Africa.
Pope on plight of migrants
Pope Francis has called for more global attention to the plight of migrants.
At a ceremony to celebrate All Saints' Day in Rome Saturday, he criticized the global response to those fleeing war and hunger.
“It seems that these people, these hungry children, these sick children, they do not count," the pontiff said. "It seems that they belong to another species, it seems they are not human.”
Refugee support groups say migrants fleeing war and poverty will not be put off by the decision to end Operation Mare Nostrum - and the boats will keep coming.