The mandate of the European Union’s military operation in the Mediterranean EUNAVFOR Med, commonly known as Operation Sophia, after the name of a baby girl born on a rescue ship, was extended on Wednesday by six months. EU member states confirmed that Sophia will rely on increased air surveillance and cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard, while removing its naval assets, an “awkward” decision, as one EU diplomat put it, that was made to appease Italy, who threatened to shut down the naval operation.
The Italian-led operation, headquartered in Rome, was launched in 2015 and has since saved some 45,000 lives and disposed of more than 500 smuggler boats. The main focus of Sophia is to disrupt smuggling networks and enforce maritime law. Unlike Mare Nostrum, its predecessor, search and rescue (SAR) activities are not a priority, though they are required under international maritime law. Accordingly, the death rate increased. According to EUobserver, under Mare Nostrum, only 4 out of 1,000 crossings were fatal, compared to 24 under Sophia.
In fact, according to the Italian Coast Guard, after July 2018, Sophia has not rescued a single migrant in the Central Mediterranean. Coincidentally, that is also the period where Italy’s interior minister and de facto leader, Matteo Salvini, started his anti-immigration campaign. This period also coincides with the halt of SAR activities by humanitarian organizations.
Instead of supporting rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, the EU abandons all SAR missions to the Libyan Coast Guard. What a great way for the EU to fulfill its ambition to be a frontrunner in defending human rights.
A controversial operation
Since June 2016, Sophia’s role has been extended to include the training, monitoring and funding of the Libyan Coast Guard, a highly controversial decision, given that the latter are known for their abusive treatment towards migrants. Reports of physical violence are well documented and the conditions in Libya’s detention centers, where migrants land once caught by Libyan ships, are appalling.
A recent leaked report obtained by POLITICO showed that EU officials are aware that some of their policies made sea crossings for migrants more dangerous but preferred to turn a blind eye. Another leaked report from Frontex already noted in 2016 that Libyan local authorities “are involved in smuggling activities” and a translator who worked for Operation Sophia said that some members of the Libyan Coast Guard were militias fighting during the civil war.
For Barbara Spinelli, an Italian MEP and member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, “Sophia is a military operation with a very political agenda […] It has become an instrument of refoulement, legitimizing militias with criminal records, dressed up as coast guards.”
Thanks to the collaboration with the Libyan Coast Guard and Salvini’s decision to close Italy’s ports to humanitarian vessels transporting rescued migrants, irregular arrivals to Italy have dropped drastically. According to POLITICO, they are down 98 percent so far this year compared to the same period in 2018, which was itself down 80 percent from 2017.
Italy’s role as decision maker
Salvini’s campaign to crack down on civilian SAR ships – the latest victim is the rescue vessel Mare Jonio, from the Italian organization Mediterranea Saving Humans – has made him Europe’s foremost anti-migration fighter. The fact that Italy is commanding the naval military operation gives it a special role – as well as a certain prestige.
Salvini had made it very clear that he was not in favor of extending Sophia’s mandate, arguing that the EU’s failure to agree on a coherent relocation mechanism has left Italy alone. His suggestion in August for a rotation of landing ports, which would see France and Spain open their ports for the disembarkation of migrants, failed to get the backing of member states.
In January, Germany decided to withdraw from Operation Sophia. The Italian command had sidelined the German navy, sending them "to the most remote areas of the Mediterranean where there are no smuggling routes and no migrant flows so that the navy has not had any sensible role for months,” said Germany's defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen.
A maritime operation without naval assets
Europe now has a maritime operation without naval assets. Is this senseful? As the spokeswomen of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic body, Maja Kocijančič puts it, “The operation will not be able to effectively implement its mandate, but the decision has been taken by member states.”
Ad-hoc solutions for humanitarian vessels have created discomfort among EU states. A reform of the Dublin Regulation seems out of sight. The closest we are to a solution – albeit temporary – is the so-called “coalition of the willing” based on a voluntary participation of member states in relocating migrants and refugees.
Extending Sophia’s mandate for six months is only postponing the decision. What the EU really needs are solid rules for the disembarkation of rescued migrants and a subsequent relocation mechanism that allows for more solidarity and responsibility sharing. Unfortunately, usual suspects Poland and Hungary refuse to participate.