Refugees

Quartz– Last year more than a million migrants and refugees risked their lives in overcrowded, often barely seaworthy boats to cross the Mediterranean. Most of them were Syrians, making the trip from Turkey to Greece in an attempt to get inside the borders of the European Union.

But the Turkey-Greece route—now down to a trickle after a deal between Turkey and the EU in March—is only one of two main ways across the Mediterranean. The other, used mainly by migrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, goes from the northern African coast (typically Libya) to Sicily. Fewer people take it—153,000 in 2015, compared to some 850,000 for the Turkey-Greece route—but it’s much more dangerous. In 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), nearly 2,900 people died on the Libya-Sicily route—1.85% of those who attempted the crossing, compared to fewer than 0.1% of those getting to Greece.

Because of its perilousness, this route, known as the Central Mediterranean route, is now the focus of the largest search-and-rescue program in European history, called Triton. It has at least 18 vessels, four aircraft, and two helicopters patrolling the Mediterranean. The Italian government, once solely responsible for all search-and-rescue efforts in the area, has another three warships and an aircraft carrier out at sea, plus the entire coast guard fleet. Several independent organizations help too.

This combined operation has saved hundreds of thousands of lives—including more than 100,000 so far this year, according to the Italian coast guard—thanks to a well-oiled rescue protocol. And despite all those boats and aircraft, the protocol doesn’t rely on sea patrols and sightings of vessels in peril. Instead, it starts with a phone call.

That number is Italy’s emergency number for help at sea, managed by the coast guard in Rome.

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