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21st Jan 2021

EU naval operation Sophia saved 5,700 lives

  • EU's 'Sophia' is not a rescue mission, but it did save lives while disrupting smugglers' operations (Photo: Frontex)

The EU’s naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea, named Sophia, rescued 5,700 migrants in the last two months, the operation’s commander, rear admiral Enrico Credendino, told journalists on Wednesday (2 December).

The EU mission allows personnel to forcibly board, search, and apprehend vessels suspected of smuggling people, its second phase, which started on 7 October.

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The operation, restricted to international waters, was named after a Somali girl, born on a German vessel in August, after her mother was rescued trying to cross to Europe.

Credendino said in the last eight weeks 43 arrests were made and 46 boats were seized. He added that force was not so far used to board smuggler’s boats.

After boats are seized, migrants are taken to safety, while Italian authorities carry out investigations and prosecutions of suspected smugglers.

Apprehended smugglers are coming from Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, and “south African countries,” the admiral said.

He added that migrants are increasingly taking the safer Western Balkans route towards the EU, rather than the Mediterranean route, where almost 3,000 people died since January.

While in the beginning of the year migrants in equal numbers headed towards the Mediterranean and the Western Balkan paths, now the Mediterranean Sea is accounts for 20 percent of the people arriving to Europe.

Credendino said more effective Egyptian border control, blocking migrants from reaching Libya, the fact the Western Balkan route is safer, and Sophia’s deterrent effect contributed to the shift.

“For smugglers it is not possible to go to international waters. They know we are there. They know we can apprehend them and give them to the Italian authorities,” the admiral said.

The operation, in which 22 member states participate, is relies on their intelligence and has no capacity to gather its own. Credendino said he’s aware the Islamic State is in Libya, but he does not think its presence is spreading.

The operation is planning to move inside Libyan territorial waters, pending an invitation from the Libyan authorities or a UN Security Council resolution.

The commander called for a training mission for the Libyan navy and coast guard, which is not part of Sophia’s mandate and requires a new political decision.

The chairman of the EU’s Military Committee, general Mikhail Kostarakos, indicated it is a precondition for the operation’s success.

“We believe it should be part of our policy in the future, as we understand it, this is our exit policy from this operation. The moment they don’t need us anymore, could be the moment that we have accomplished our mission,” Kostarakos said.

“Somebody needs to start as soon as possible,” Credendino added.

Nato to join EU warships in Libya migrant operation

Nato warships and, potentially, drones are to help the EU control migrant flows across the Mediterranean in what critics have called the “militarisation of a humanitarian crisis”.

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