4th Feb 2023


Internal memo: EU navies to police Libya migration for years

  • Central Mediterranean is becoming increasingly militarised (Photo: EUobserver)
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EU navies should stay parked off the Libyan coast for years to come, the bloc's military advisors say, renewing concern on "vile" conditions for refugees there.

Operation Irini patrols one of the EU's most dangerous migration corridors — the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, where more than 100,000 people crossed in 2022 and where thousands have drowned since 2014.

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Its two ships and seven surveillance aircraft are also meant to help enforce a UN arms and oil embargo on Libya.

And given worsening "instability", including gunfights in Tripoli, Irini should stay until at least 31 March 2025, the EU foreign service's military committee said in an internal memo to member states' ambassadors in Brussels on Monday (17 January).

Irini shares surveillance data on migration with EU border-control agency Frontex.

And Frontex works hand-in-glove with the Libyan coast guard, which stops boats in Libyan waters, but which has a grim record on human rights.

The Warsaw-based agency's new chief Hans Leijtens on Thursday declined to comment when asked about possible Frontex complicity in Libyan pushbacks, telling reporters that he still needs to be fully briefed before he officially starts in March.

"If there is information we need to know about ourselves, we need to review our own operations," he said.

The Libyan coast guard also dumps people in detention camps where they risk being murdered, tortured, and raped, according to harrowing eye-witness testimonies previously shared with EUobserver.

The EU memo on Irini mentioned "concern" for the refugees' "situation".

The formal document also declared that "rule of law, human rights, the Women Peace and Security Agenda and gender perspectives should be systematically integrated and mainstreamed into all [Irini's] activities".

But this wasn't worth the pixels it was written on for Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based NGO.

Asked if Irini had helped protect vulnerable people in the past two years, HRW's Andrew Stroehlein said: "In fact, completely the opposite".

"The EU has essentially been complicit in torture and other abuses in Libya. Decision makers know full well what happens to people in Libya, but they help send people there anyway," he said.

"It's vile," Stroehlein added.

The EU memo admitted Irini's efforts to improve Libyan coast guard standards had failed.

Two-years of meaningless talks had rendered the "secondary-task" "irrelevant" and Irini should consider "other alternatives" going forward, the memo said, without suggesting options.

But despite the moral hazard, EU diplomats want their eyes in the sky to hoover up even more data to share in future.

Irini should "increase the effectiveness of air surveillance of its Area of Operations to allow the early detection of migrant departures", the EU foreign service said.

It should also explore "using the EU Satcen's capabilities to an even greater extent ... to observe more of the numerous land routes", it said, referring to Europe's joint satellite-surveillance agency in Spain.

And for other NGOs, such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Irini's mandate-renewal already looks like a lost opportunity to do some good.

"Operation Irini doesn't have search and rescue in its mandate, despite a clear and ever-increasing need for greater rescue efforts in the Mediterranean," the IRC's Niamh nic Carthaigh said.

"It's vital that the EU urgently launches its own, fully resourced, search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, and strengthens its coordination with other rescue actors, including NGOs. The EU's failure to do so will result in countless more needless, tragic deaths," she said.


Migration aside, Europe's North African underbelly has become a hotspot of geopolitical rivalries and arms-smuggling.

A UN arms embargo on Libya "is constantly broken, especially by air and land, based on available intelligence, undermining the efforts made by the operation on the high seas," the EU memo said.

And Turkey is part of the problem, the unvarnished report noted.

Irini is named after the Greek word for "peace", while currently fielding a 130m-long Greek frigate.

But if the irony piques Turkey, amid old bilateral tensions, then Turkey, a Nato member, is also behaving strangely for a Western ally.

Turkey is pouring arms into Libya in a tug-of-war over the strategic and oil-rich country, involving also the EU's Mediterranean powers, Russia, and Gulf Arab states.

Irini can't share data with Nato, because of Turkey's frozen conflict with Cyprus, the EU diplomats noted.

And Turkish vessels elbow their way through the EU cordon, making Irini look silly, they warned.

"The EUMC [EU foreign service's military committee] is also concerned about Turkey's systematic refusal of Operation Irini's request to inspect Turkish-flagged merchant vessels", the report added.

If Turkish ships could come and go while EU patrols stopped others, it posed questions on the "impartiality and therefore on the effectiveness of the operation," the EU memo said.


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