Member states have agreed in principle to pare back the Rome-based Operation Sophia to aerial surveillance after Italy refused to back continued boat patrols without a deal to redistribute rescued migrants to other EU countries.
Observers say that Wednesday’s decision to weaken the rescue initiative was a sign of the bloc’s greater determination to prevent illegal migrants reaching its external border. The change would mean that the EU-trained Libyan coastguard had the main responsibility for rescuing migrants and housing them in facilities in the war-racked country, where beatings, rape and murder have been reported.
“It is unacceptable that the response by EU leaders is to remove Operation Sophia’s rescue capacity,” said Izza Leghtas, senior advocate for Europe for Refugees International advocacy group. “Men, women and children are already drowning in the Mediterranean at a higher rate and we need more rescue capacity, not less. We also know that people intercepted by Libyan coastguards are taken to centres where horrific abuses are taking place.”
EU member state diplomats meeting in Brussels agreed to order the two patrol boats to remain in port as part of a deal to extend the initiative for six months beyond Sunday’s expiry of its mandate. The EU agreement is expected to be finalised on Friday, although officials warned that last-minute opposition could not be ruled out.
The provisional decision was made after Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, refused to allow NGO rescue vessels to dock, triggering emergency deals to relocate migrants to other EU countries. The bloc has long been deadlocked over efforts to reform its common asylum policy, even though irregular migrant arrival numbers are now a fraction of their 2015-16 highs.
Maja Kocijancic, the European Commission spokesperson on foreign affairs, told reporters that “without naval assets, the operation will not be able to effectively implement its mandate”.
Diplomats acknowledged the potential problems created by removing the ships and offloading more responsibility on Libyan authorities to both rescue and house migrants.
Abd al-Rahman al-Milad, head of a Libyan coastguard regional command, is under UN Security Council sanctions for alleged human trafficking. A UN panel of experts has accused his unit of being “directly involved in the sinking of migrant boats using firearms”. The EU has said it did not train Mr Milad, although it did not confirm whether the same is true for all the men under his direction.
“Of course people have concerns about the situation on the ground in Libya, and the lack of international leverage over it,” said one EU member state diplomat. “If we were to see a big surge in irregular migrant crossings as the weather improves leading into summer, I think Sophia will rise back up the agenda.”