European naval anti-smuggling operation Sophia will continue, but won’t be naval anymore

  • Pavel Hanosek
  • 16.4.2019 09:36

The Political and Security Committee, composed of the ambassadors of the member states dealing with security policy related topics, agreed on an extension of Operation Sophia. However, with one “slight” change - warships are not going to be part of the mission anymore at Italy’s proposition. Italy repeatedly asked its European partners to come forward with assistance and assign some of their ports to register incoming migrants. None of them has done it. The continuation of the operation also means a further “outsourcing” of the issue to the already heavily criticized Libyan coast guard, which was criticized by various humanitarian organizations.

Operation Sophia was launched in June 2015 with the aim to fight human trafficking and smuggling from North Africa to Europe. One of the most important goals was also to establish closer cooperation with the Libyan coast guards, a crucial ally in the difficult task of the mission. Sophia was assigned aerial assets, mainly to locate boats in emergency situations, and navy assets, to rescue people in need, migrants in particular, and to fight smugglers. With the new change in the mandate, the mission is going to continue for the next six months, but naval assets will be suspended for this period.


Diminished capabilities

Italy demanded that other member states also participate in the redistribution of migrants rescued from the sea and threatened to cancel the whole mission. Even though the mission was not cancelled in the end, its capabilities are very much diminished by the implementation of the new changes. Without ships, there is no assurance that drowning people in the Mediterranean will be rescued in case of emergency. Yet this is probably not a very powerful threat for Giuseppe Conte’s strongly anti-migrant Italian government.

On one hand, this position might be understandable as Italy struggled very hard with the massive influx of migrants for several years. On the other hand, the situation is more or less under control today. We also cannot forget to point out that international law obliges ships to rescue people in danger. Without European ships monitoring the Mediterranean, this obligation loses some of its strength.


Operation controversies

Italy also used the Sophia mission as a political tool. From June 2018, only around one hundred migrants were rescued, which is a significant discrepancy in comparison with the 45 000 migrants rescued during the previous three years of the mission. German sailors from the Augsburg frigate reported that the Italian command of the operation sent them too far from smuggler routes and therefore their presence was very ineffective. That is also one of the reasons why Germany sent its ship back home in February 2019. June 2018 also correlates with the beginning of intense criticism of the Sophia operation rules by Conte’s Italian government.

It is obvious that the far-right Italian government is dissatisfied with the Union’s ability to solve complex problems such as migration. Italy is also dissatisfied with its partners’ unwillingness to offer real assistance and to open their ports for incoming migrants. The achieved compromise and the extension of the operation Sophia is merely a symbolic act. Without any deployed ships the rescue capabilities in emergency situations are limited. This fact was highlighted by humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders. However, the organizations also criticize the attempt to “outsource” the issue to the Libyan coast guard, which proved to be a rather controversial institution many times in the past and also was blamed for violations of human rights.

Italy is going to face further migration with or without the Sophia operation in place. However, it is questionable whether member states of the EU will change their policy and open their ports for migrants in the future to help tackle migration. In the meantime, we have to prepare ourselves to hear about more people drowning in the Mediterranean partly also because of this policy dispute among the European states.

About author: Pavel Hanosek


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