Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Opinion

Sophia in limbo: political games limit sea rescues

  • Germany's frigate, the Schleswig-Holstein, on active duty on Operation Sophia. The mission comes to an end at the end of this month (Photo: EEAS)

There are only few weeks left until the mandate of the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean, EUNAVFOR Med [Operation Sophia], will expire on 31 March.

Nevertheless, Germany already decided in January to stop contributing vessels to the mission: its frigate Augsburg left in February.

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As well as structural problems (the German navy currently lacks functioning vessels), the German minister of defence delivered another, quite extraordinary explanation: that since July 2018, the Italian command of Operation Sophia has sent the German vessel (and all the other ones) on routes where there was nothing to do, as these were far off any smuggling or trafficking areas.

And, indeed, the mission which has rescued about 49,000 people so far has picked up only 106 refugees since July 2018.

What an interesting coincidence - as the summer of 2018 is exactly the starting point for all the obstructions by Italy's minister of interior, Matteo Salvini, regarding both this mission and other actors involved in rescues in the Mediterranean.

Originally, the mission was pushed for - by the Italians - in 2015, and is currently led by an Italian admiral.

Salvini is not pleased with the mission's rescue efforts of migrants in the Mediterranean and disembarking them, by-and-large, at Italian ports.

Rescuing at sea is not part of the mission's mandate, but an obligation by international law.

Operation Sophia's mandate actually focuses on efforts to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks.

Another task has been the training of the Libyan coast guards.

Salvini has pressured the EU to draw up a new operational plan in accordance with his demand that the mission stops transferring migrants to Italian harbours. Otherwise, he will push for its termination.

In 2014, when Italy's so far most effective rescue mission in the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum, was still operational, only four out of every 1,000 attempts to cross the sea were fatal.

In 2018, after the capacities for rescue were reduced following pressure from the Italian government on both NGO rescue ships as well as Operation Sophia, and even their own coast guard, fatalities increased to 24 deaths per 1,000 attempts to cross.

By the end of December, member states were only able to find a compromise to prolong the mission for three months, using a rather less-complicated legal move (called a "technical roll-over") to have more time to discuss.

But it seems rather naive to think that Salvini and his League will agree to a compromise in 2019 - the year where his party and other nationalists want to succeed at the European elections on an anti-migration platform.

Yet, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and Federica Mogherini have lately intensified their talks to prolong the mission.

In a cynical tweet, the EEAS's deputy head of strategic communication, claimed the importance of the mission and that the problem with disembarkation was actually only a limited issue as only 106 people have been rescued since July 2018.

How many have drowned?

But should a mission, which is not fulfilling its mandate, be kept only as a political symbol?

How can Operation Sophia interfere with any smuggling activities if its ships are sent away from any smuggling routes?

Recently leaked internal documents on Operation Sophia have increased the doubts about the effectiveness of it altogether.

The leak not only illustrated terrible unintended consequences of claimed successes, but it has also been shown that some of the Libyan coast guard trainees of the mission were even sanctioned by the UN "for smuggling and human rights violations".

The whole debate on Operation Sophia should teach member states that missions under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU should not be used as political symbols and for highly-contested internal policy issues such as migration.

For populists all over Europe, Operation Sophia has been a great asset for political gambling.

In contrast, instruments such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) or Europol are less affected by political quarrels in their daily operational tasks. To rescue people and prevent smuggling should anyway be dealt with by national coast guards and national police.

But without a European consensus on migration as well as a common asylum procedure including a distribution mechanism for those entitled to protection, there will not be any sustainable solution for the situation in the Mediterranean.

Thus there is the need for a short and medium-term solution: those member states that are still willing to save lives in the Mediterranean should set up a new Mare Nostrum rescue mission (eg, Spain, France, Portugal and Germany).

We need a clear humanitarian solution as long as people are drowning in the sea or being traumatised or killed in Libyan detention centres.

It is shameful for Europe to ignore the humanitarian plight of these people.

Author bio

Tobias Pietz is deputy head of the analysis division of Berlin-based Center for International Peace Operations.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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