Migration compromise sought on mission in Mediterranean

Operation Sophia to continue with air patrols, ships saving illegals to be withdrawn

The EU last week was discussing an interesting compromise on continuing Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, news wires reported. While air patrols searching for migrants crossing the sea will be extended, ships that could save them are going to be withdrawn. The obvious change in policy reflects Europe's growing aversion to irregular arrivals.

The potential compromise among EU states, according to a draft document seen by Reuters, would prolong Operation Sophia for six months but only for air patrols of the Mediterranean. It would also include training of the coast guard in Libya, where lawlessness has allowed smugglers sending people to Europe to operate freely in recent years. EU diplomats said the proposal was not yet certain to win the final endorsement.

According to the UN, the new parametres of the mission would significantly weaken its role in saving lives in the sea, where nearly 2,300 people perished last year. But with Italy, under the influence of the anti-migration deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, saying it would no longer be the main point of disembarkation for people picked up from the water by Operation Sophia ships, the change seemed inevitable. Moreover, Germany and many other Member States are also not keen on hosting illegals but they do want the mission to continue.

The discussion among EU diplomats over Operation Sophia, the mandate of which expires on 31 March, stems from feuds over migration that have damaged the bloc’s unity since a surge in chaotic Mediterranean arrivals in 2015. From the more than one million migrants who made it to the bloc in that crisis year, sea arrivals dropped significantly to 141,500 people in 2018, according to UN data.

The change, however, would be in line with the EU's policy of turning increasingly restrictive on Mediterranean immigration since 2015 and discouraging people from risking their lives in the sea in trying to cross to Europe where governments do not want them. The bloc has already curbed operations of EU aid groups in the part of the Mediterranean in question and moved its own ships further north where fewer rescues take place. The Union is unwilling to take care of more people coming, which it would be obliged to do under international law if EU ships take them onboard.

As the EU has taken on an increasingly adverse stance on irregular immigration from the Middle East and Africa since 2015, it has also tightened its borders and asylum laws, and struck deals with countries on the eastern and southern rim of the Mediterranean to prevent people from embarking for Europe.

Sophia's website shows the mission currently has two ships deployed in the sea - one Spanish and one Italian - but dozens of other vessels have been involved at different times since the naval mission was first launched in June 2015. Five air planes and helicopters are now active under Sophia, which could become an EU naval mission without ships.

Since the operation began in 2015, Sophia has been credited with saving more than 45,000 people's lives at sea. While its primary mission was to combat smuggling gangs off Libya, it was also tasked with enforcing a weapons embargo on Libya, which has seen ongoing conflict since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

More on this subject: Migration crisis

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