By Steve Scherer
ABOARD THE TYR (Reuters) - With migration across the Mediterranean surging, the European Union's largest border operation is bracing for a record year of arrivals by sea, especially as summer brings calm waters between Italy and Libya.
Off the eastern coast of Sicily earlier this week, the 18-member crew of the Icelandic coast guard vessel Tyr -- named after a Nordic god of war -- conducted rescue drills in seas more familiar in Greek mythology, preparing for the worst.
Though the United Nations refugee agency has criticized the mission, known as Triton, because its mandate is not search and rescue but border control with patrols near the Italian coast, the EU border agency Frontex says it is saving lives.
"We participate in a lot of search and rescue operations that take place far from the Italian shore, usually about 40 nautical miles north of Libya," Frontex spokeswoman Ewa Moncure told Reuters on the bridge of the Tyr.
Italy, citing cost concerns, discontinued its much larger Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue mission in November, when Triton began. Since then, Italy has continued to supervise the retrieval of 200 boats carrying almost 25,000 migrants, with Triton vessels helping in about a third of the rescues.
About 170,000 entered the EU through Italy last year by way of the dangerous sea crossing organised by human traffickers, mostly in Libya, while more than 3,000 perished.
During the first two months of this year, arrivals were up 43 percent versus the same period of 2014.
"We've already recorded 600 deaths on the Mediterranean this year, compared to 100 this time last year," International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
But Frontex will have fewer resources for a bigger job.
The Triton monthly budget is 2.9 million euros, a third of Mare Nostrum's. The Tyr is one of Triton's two large vessels made for sailing the open sea, whereas Mare Nostrum had five, including one with a wet dock and room to shelter thousands of migrants.
The governments of southern EU countries - including Italy, Greece and Spain - have repeatedly criticized the failure of the 28-nation bloc to devote more attention and resources to the growing immigration crisis.
To increase solidarity, the European Commission has said it will present a "migration agenda" in May, when good weather is expected to boost the flow of migrants and refugees, many of whom are fleeing civil war in Syria or forced military conscription in Eritrea.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Tom Heneghan)