Rome: Italy said on Friday it would close a sea rescue mission that has saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East, a move one rights group warned could lead to a "surge of deaths" in the Mediterranean.
Interior minister Angelino Alfano said the Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea" mission would end to make way for a smaller European Union scheme — and to help relieve the strain on Italy's public finances amid a three—year economic slump.
"Mare Nostrum is closing down because it was an emergency operation," Alfano told a news conference.
The Italian navy began Mare Nostrum just over a year ago when more than 360 men, women and children — mostly Eritreans — drowned when their overcrowded boat capsized a mile off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
Even with five warships on permanent patrol in the waters between Sicily and North Africa —— backed up by helicopter, plane and drone surveillance —— about 3,300 migrants have died attempting the crossing this year, the UN refugee agency estimates.
Alfano said Italy had spent 114 million euros to operate the mission over the past year and the closure would reduce spending "to zero".
Italy would still respect the rules of the sea and respond to SOS calls, he said, adding that cutting spending would not necessarily lead to more tragedy.
"The number of people who die is not proportionate to the number of euros spent," Alfano said.
Human rights activists warned that the closure was likely to lead to many more people drowning.
"There are no alternative routes to reach Europe, and conflicts are on the rise not only in Syria but also Iraq and other places. So there will be a greater risk of more sea tragedies without Mare Nostrum," Stefano Di Carlo, Doctors Without Borders operational chief in Italy, said.
"There is a very high risk is that there will be a surge of deaths at sea," said Riccardo Noury, an Italian spokesman for Amnesty International.
Most of those seeking to enter Europe through Italy via the Mediterranean are refugees, including tens of thousands fleeing Syria's civil war and a similar number escaping forced military conscription in Eritrea, the UN refugee agency says.
People smugglers have taken advantage of Libya's political instability and lawlessness to send convoys off its coast, making as much as a half million dollars from overcrowded and rickety boat, according to Interior Ministry estimates.