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26th Oct 2020

EU naval mission leads to more migrant drownings, says report

  • Overcrowded rubber dinghies increases risks (Photo: Frontex)

The EU naval operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, which aims to crack down on people smugglers, has resulted in an upsurge of deaths, according to a UK parliamentary report.

The inquiry, published on Wednesday (12 July) by the cross-party House of Lords, says Sophia's sinking of boats has led to smugglers sending people on more unseaworthy vessels "resulting in more deaths at sea."

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The military naval mission has, so far, removed over 420 boats from the sea and apprehended 109 smugglers and traffickers since late 2015. Around 2,206 people have died in the attempt to cross from Libya towards Italy since January 2017.

Similar concerns over drownings had already been raised last year when a spokeswoman at the EU's border agency, Frontex, told EUobserver that rubber boats were becoming more overcrowded following the Sophia boat seizures.

She noted last August that the number of people travelling on 10-12 metre-long rubber dinghies had, at the time, risen by more than quarter. Amnesty International last week had come to similar conclusions, noting that less-safe rubber dinghies are now standard given the seizure of the more stable wooden boats.

Although Sophia has saved over 30,000 people, the UK inquiry noted its core mandate - to stop the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks - has broadly failed to deliver, given the number of people still trying to leave Libya.

Instead, the UK inquiry said that any meaningful EU action against people smuggling networks inside Libya first requires a unified government that is able to able to provide security across the country.

The high numbers of people leaving Libya on unseaworthy boats has forced NGOs and charities to operate closer to the Libyan coastline.

People rescued end up disembarked at Italian ports, triggering a backlash from Rome, as accusations circulate that the presence of NGOs near Libya has become a lure for more migrants.

Italy has asked for other EU states to open their ports but received short shrift from EU interior ministers last week at a meeting in Tallinn.

Italian authorities, with the backing of the European Commission, are now drafting a controversial code of conduct for NGOs, which aims to curb their rescue efforts near the Libyan coast.

A leaked draft of the code bars NGO vessels from entering Libyan territorial waters to undertake rescues. Lights to signal their location to vessels at imminent risk of sinking will also be banned, among other plans.

But Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, says the code will only further endanger lives.

"Perversely, the proposed code of conduct for NGOs saving lives in the Mediterranean could put lives at risk,” she said in a statement.

Tug of war

The tug of war over rescues - between those carried out by authorities or by NGOs - only continues to escalate.

On Tuesday, Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri met with Italian authorities, along with a handful of other EU states, to discuss reinforcing the agency's surveillance operations in the central Mediterranean.

Frontex wants to expand its multipurpose aerial surveillance (MAS) operation, which involves using a plane to stream real-time video and other data to the agency's headquarters in Warsaw.

A hearing on search and rescues is also being held on Wednesday at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Italy to impose tough rules on NGOs

Italian authorities will release a code of conduct for NGOs, which prevents them, among other things, from entering Libyan territorial waters. A draft copy of the code says NGOs will be banned from Italian ports on failure to comply.

EU backs Italy on NGO rescues

The European Commission has said that the EU and Italy merely want to “better organise” migrant rescues in the Central Mediterranean.

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