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28th May 2022

New EU navy operation to keep migrant details secret

  • Operation Irini was agreed earlier this week, but has yet to send boats to sea (Photo: EEAS)

The EU's new 'Irini' naval operation, off the Libyan coast, will not disclose how member states decide where to send any migrants rescued at sea.

This issue had previously rankled with Austria and Hungary who had threatened to derail Irini, an operation whose primary objective is to enforce the United Nation's arms embargo against Libya.

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An EU foreign affairs spokesperson said special confidential arrangements have instead been made on where to disembark people, should Irini have to rescue them at sea.

"The operational plan is a confidential document, it is a classified document, so I am not at liberty to go into details on this," he told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday (1 April), when pressed on rescues.

International law requires vessels to rescue anyone in distress at sea.

But such maritime rescues are also politically toxic in the EU.

The EU and its member states have increasingly shored up barriers to prevent migrants and refugees from reaching mainland Europe, forcing many to seek help from NGO charity boats.

The charities in turn have faced government-led criminal lawsuits, and threats to send their boat captains to jail.

Other vessels, full of rescued people, have had to circle offshore for weeks at a time - while EU states dither about who, and where, will take them.

The running saga has cast a long shadow over Europe's international reputation and stand on human and fundamental rights, that continues to play out in Greece, where asylum applications have been temporarily suspended.

Around 15,500 people have crossed the Mediterranean to reach the EU so far this year, according to figures provided by the International Organization for Migration.

Irini's predecessor Sophia also had a wider mandate to halt traffickers and smugglers but was stripped of all its naval assets following objections to sea rescues from Italy's then hard-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

Salvini along with others claimed Sophia's presence at sea ended up luring migrants to take boats - despite data showing the contrary.

The migratory flow through the central Mediterranean in fact decreased between 2016 and 2019, while Operation Sophia's naval assets were fully deployed.

Aside from attempting to control a UN arms embargo at sea, Irini has also been mandated to continue training the Libyan Coast Guard, under the guise of improving human rights and sea rescues.

However, most people rescued by the Libyan Coast Guard are sent to any number of notorious detention centres peppered throughout a country in the grips of civil war.

And although Irini was officially launched earlier this week, the mission is still only a reality on paper.

"Member states have indeed already made some pledges and contributions in terms of ships and arial assets and this work continues, so it is an ongoing-process," said the spokesperson.

No clear date has been given for when boats will be put in water.

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