Interview with Admiral Pettorino, Italian Coast Guard: “Saving Lives is Our Only Concern”

Italian Coast Guard rescue operation © Francesco Malavolta

By Flavio Di Giacomo

For the men working in the Control Centre of the Coast Guard in Rome, there is no difference between night and day. In this high-tech room there are no windows – only rows of computers and screens displaying maps of the Mediterranean Sea (and the world) and the positions of military and commercial ships. This room controls the Coast Guard’s rescue operations at sea – hour by hour, without any interruption.

“When we work here, we have only one mission in mind: to save lives and not to miss any emergency call,” says Rear Admiral Giovanni Pettorino, Chief of Operations at the Italian Harbourmaster Corps (Coast Guard) in Rome. “We are dealing with a huge phenomenon: more than 165,000 migrants reached the Italian shores this year – almost three times more than last year when arrivals were 42,925. And this is something that we predict is going to continue. We have never seen so many arrivals.”

The Italian Coast Guard is a Corps whose tasks and functions mainly relate to the civilian use of the sea. For most of its functions, it is governed by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport. But it also operates on behalf of other ministries, such as the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defence. “Search and rescue” at sea is its primary responsibility. And the Control Centre operates as the National Coordination Centre for all maritime rescue operations.

“Our operational activity extends to all the Italian Search and Rescue (SAR) zones, far beyond the boundaries of territorial waters, and includes over 500,000 km2 of sea,” explains the Admiral.

What happens when you receive a ‘boat in distress’ call?

“Most of the boats arrive from Libya. If a boat in distress is in our SAR zone, we immediately send our units and contact all the ships in the area, including commercial ships. The first to arrive must save the lives of the migrants. If the boat is outside our SAR zone and is closer to Libya, then we contact the Libyan Coast Guard. If they do not answer or say that they cannot intervene (which happens very often) we contact ships in the area, usually commercial ships, and ask them to go to help the migrants. Once rescued, the migrants are brought to Italy – not to Libya.”

2014 was a very intense year for migrant arrivals. How did you manage to organize the ‘search and rescue’ operations?

“The Italian Navy operation Mare Nostrum represented a very important message of humanity and civil responsibility sent out by the Italian Government. Mare Nostrum this year rescued 85,032 migrants. But the Coast Guard carried out many other operations as well. We rescued 36,282 people, more or less the same as last year, when arrivals were over 42,000.”

“It is important to underline another relevant fact: 41,306 migrants were rescued by a total of 237 commercial ships which we contacted in emergency situations. And they carried out a great, essential job. Operations with people at sea are often difficult and dangerous, but they succeeded in saving thousands of lives, always supported by our telephone hotline at the Control Centre here in Rome. Commercial ships have always been a great support and played a key role this year.”

What kinds of boats are usually rescued at sea?

“Firstly, it is necessary to say that we consider all migrant boats in great danger, even if they do not have obvious problems and are not in imminent danger. These vessels are always unseaworthy, unsafe and overcrowded. And we rescue people as soon as we spot them and reach them. As the Italian Coast Guard, we always comply with the 1979 Hamburg International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. But above all, we follow the Law of the Sea: we save lives. If we know that there is a boat in distress, we want to rescue it and we find a solution, no matter where it is or how difficult the task.”

“Generally speaking, migrants travel on rubber dinghies, with about 100 or more people on board, or on old fishing boats that can carry 500 or more people. Since October 2014, we have registered the arrival of many Syrians and Palestinians from Mersin in Turkey. They use big, steel hulled commercial ships with about 500 people on board. It’s a new route that worries us very much, for many reasons: it is a dangerous and very long journey.”

“Furthermore, the traffickers appear to be very organized and the cost of the journey is very high. They will earn a lot of money and will be able to buy more ships. This is something that needs to be stopped. We firmly believe that these criminal networks, in Turkey, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, must be cracked down on, and traffickers and smugglers must be persecuted.”

Do you think that Mare Nostrum* may have been a pull factor for migrants, as some people have said?

“No, we think that the exceptional flow of migrants registered this year has been caused by the unprecedented number of humanitarian crises that are happening near Europe’s external borders. Mare Nostrum is now over, but the flow is still going on: we have never experienced so many arrivals during the winter. Migrants know that the journey is dangerous and that many people die at sea, but nonetheless they keep trying. We consider that this flow will be more or less the same next year, and we will still carry out SAR operations, supported by commercial ships. The Triton/Frontex ships, whose mandate is mainly focused on border control, will operate up to 30 miles off the Italian coast.”

“We will continue to work night and day, and – as always – we will never leave anyone behind. But if the arrivals don’t decrease, it will not be possible to respond in an adequate way to such big numbers, and the risk of shipwrecks will increase. More support will be necessary.”

*Mare Nostrum (‘our sea’) is a seven-month sea rescue operation carried out by the Italian Navy

How do you feel when a Coast Guard unit goes out on a dangerous operation?

“We are always in contact with our units when they are out rescuing people. It is like we are right there with them: we hear the voices, the noises, the screams of the children and women at sea, sometimes saved at the very last moment. A few months ago, four of our men, on a relatively small rescue ship, succeeded in saving the lives of about 70 Syrians who were on a boat caught in a middle of a storm off the coast of Calabria. There were eight-metre waves, and all our other ships that tried to leave port didn’t make it. Well, these four men, on this small unit, risked their lives, working in unbelievable conditions, and rescued all the migrants. One by one. Nobody died. It was a very emotional moment for all of us. We will never forget it.”