European Operation Sophia has been rescuing fewer migrants since its ships were halted | Credit: Picture-alliance/dpa/G.Lami
European Operation Sophia has been rescuing fewer migrants since its ships were halted | Credit: Picture-alliance/dpa/G.Lami

The European Union has extended Operation Sophia, its anti-migrant-smuggling mission along the Libyan Mediterranean coast, by six months to the end of March 2020. Actual naval operations remain halted, however; the mandate now mainly consists of air support and training Libya’s controversial coast guard, Europe’s go-to partner to stem migration.

European Union member states resolved to extend the naval mission Operation Sophia for another six months. The mandate was due to expire at the end of September, According to a press release by the European Council, the core aim of the operation, which was set up four years ago, is to "disrupt the business model of migrant smugglers and human traffickers" in the southern central Mediterranean. Albeit not an official goal, the desired result is fewer migrants successfully crossing the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa to Europe.

The operation's new mandate is to run until the end of March 2020, EU member states announced on Thursday. Due to a spat over migrant disembarkation, however, naval patrols were halted in March, and the Sophia thus cannot save distressed migrants at sea.

Operation Sophia, officially European Union Naval Force - Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED), currently only commences from the air and trains Libya’s controversial coast guard and navy. It also "monitors the long-term efficiency of the training and contributes to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya." It further "conducts surveillance activities and gathers information on illegal trafficking of oil exports from Libya."

Libya’s EU-funded and -trained coast guard, the bloc’s preferred partner to prevent migrants from reaching European soil, intercepted some 20,000 people in 2017 alone. While it is doing its job in the Mediterranean efficiently, it is not as good at abiding by the law.

The list of accusations against Libya’s coast guard is long: human rights violations including torture, violence toward and hindering rescue operations of volunteer rescue groups, being made up of a number of groups that were often formerly militia as well as being involved in smuggling networks.

Moreover, human rights groups have repeatedly called on the EU to stop its policy of allowing migrants to be returned to Libya, where they face hellish conditions in detention centers, according to UN organizations.

Combating smuggling gangs

Until March, Operation Sophia's boats patrolled the waters of the southern central Mediterranean. The aim was to tackle people smuggling, as well as to help supervise oil exports and enforce a UN embargo on arms imports to civil war-torn Libya, which has seen ongoing conflict since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Italy vetoed the operation's use of ships due to the fact that migrants rescued by European naval vessels were brought exclusively to Italian shores. Close to 50,000 migrants have been taken to Italy since Operation Sophia was launched off Libya's coast in 2015.

Migrants rescued in the Mediterranean  Photo Picture-allianceAPRBritoThis week, Germany, France, Italy and Malta reached a deal on redistributing migrants rescued at sea following weeks of discussion. No specific details were given, but Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said rescued migrants were to be sent to various EU states within four weeks of being taken to shore.

Disagreement on the issue among EU states had led to migrants sometimes spending weeks stranded at sea on NGO rescue vessels.

EU defends course of action

Despite hefty criticism against the EU’s migration policy, the bloc has staunchly rejected this criticism with few exceptions. It argued, for instance, that the agreement between the EU member states and Libya’s coast guard has significantly reduced the number of refugee arrivals in Italy.

An exception was the Council of Europe calling for an end of the cooperation with Libya’s coast guard amid the devastating conditions. The council is an entirely separate body from the EU.

The United Nations and aid groups blame the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean in part on the EU's policy of partnering with Libya’s coast guard to prevent migrants from trying to cross the Mediterranean.

With material from dpa


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