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Trying to Balance Nationalist And Anti-Migrant Tensions, The EU Floats a Compromise on Operation Sophia – But at What Cost?

The EU compromises with Italy’s anti-migrant stance in order to keep Operation Sophia afloat, curbing all maritime activities and boosting air support in its stead. Long credited with winding down human trafficking in the region, Operation Sophia has also rescued many from downing on the treacherous Mediterranean crossing, and yet, can no longer continue to do so without a maritime fleet.

The EU will soon cease the maritime patrols that rescued thousands of migrants, attempting the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. However, pending endorsement from all EU member states, the EU will extend air missions.

“Member states have decided to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia for six months, with a temporary suspension of its naval assets, while member states continue working on a solution related to disembarkation,” said EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.

However, Sophia “is a maritime operation and it is clear that without naval resources, it will not be able to carry out its mandate effectively,” she added.

The pullback on Operation Sophia, which was first established in 2015 to neutralise human trafficking routes originating from Libya, was worked out after Italy said it would no longer receive those who were rescued at sea. Operation Sophia’s headquarters are based in Rome, and Italy is currently a hotbed of anti-migrant sentiment. Originally, Operation Sophia was set to expire Sunday. Due to the new compromise, the operation will continue for another six months, with the aim of deterring human traffickers operating in the Mediterranean. However, going forward the EU will rely on air patrols and closer coordination with Libya. France and Italy plan to offer six guard boats, delivered in batches of two beginning this spring, to the Libyan coastguard as part of this effort – a complicated political balance, given Italy and France back opposing sides in the ongoing Libyan civil war.

This new arrangement will involve greater training for the Libyan coast guard. Smugglers have taken advantage of lawlessness in Libya, due to their ongoing civil war, to engage in human trafficking via the Mediterranean. Already, the EU has reduced operations in part of the region, and moved its own ships farther north, where rescues are less frequent. The EU also controls the enforcement of a UN arms embargo on Libya, and counters illegal oil trafficking.

However, NGOs and activists like Doctors Without Borders condemn the rampant human rights abuses against migrants in Libya, and urge the EU not to simply outsource the problem. Last January, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report, saying that the support provided by the EU to the Libyan coast guard contributes to the cruel treatment and detention of hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers intercepted at sea.

The international aid group, Doctors Without Borders, described the decision to halt Operation Sophia as “irresponsible and reckless”.

“It shows again that the EU considers it acceptable to let people die at sea as a deterrence for migration, instead of providing adequate search and rescue capacity, and agreeing on a disembarkation system which prioritises saving lives, and gives people a chance to apply for asylum,” said their humanitarian affairs adviser, Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui.

“This is an outrageous abdication of EU governments’ responsibilities,” said Amnesty International. “This shameful decision has nothing to do with the needs of people who risk their lives at sea, but everything to do with the inability of European governments to agree on a way to share responsibility for them,” it said in a statement.

In the meantime, only two ships continue to patrol the central Mediterranean as part of Operation Sophia. Rayo, a Spanish vessel, and Luigi Rizzo, an Italian vessel. Both are supported via air, with Spanish, Italian, Polish, and Luxembourgish backing.

Protest in Brussels condemning human rights abuses. Copyright: The Art of Pics /

Since its inception, Operation Sophia has claimed to have arrested 150 traffickers and rescued 45,000 people. However, Italy’s new populist far-right government effectively put an end to Sophia’s operations last year, even though it had successfully reduced smugglers bringing migrants into Europe via the Mediterranean.

Now, this new compromise could weaken the EU’s ability to save lives. Last year, nearly 2,300 people drowned attempting to make the crossing, according to UN figures.

The number of arrivals has also dropped. Over 1 million refugees and migrants made it to Europe during 2015, but sea arrivals dropped to a mere 141,500 in 2018.

However, Italy was still a main point of entry for many, to which Italy’s deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, takes objection. Since its government came into power last June, Italy has refused to take in any people from search-and-rescue ships, leaving many stranded at sea,  most of whom are fleeing conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East. Instead, Rome called for other countries to open up their ports. Spain, France, and Germany, all signalled that they would not be willing to take on additional migrants and refugees. While some EU member states have formed coalitions amongst those willing to accept migrants once a ship docked at another port, ideally, the EU would like to make these ad-hoc arrangements more stable and permanent. Nevertheless, attempts to do so have floundered, due to failure to decide who should bear responsibility for taking people in and processing their asylum claims.

Instead, the EU has agreed that the maritime operation simply continue without boats, making it less effective. Federica Mogherini, a spokeswoman for the EU’s foreign policy chief, acknowledged that “it is clear that without naval assets, the operation will not be able to effectively implement its mandate, but the decision has been taken by the member states.”

However, the EU did not wish to end Operation Sophia, due to its success in dissuading smugglers. The result has been the compromise of additional air support, along with the total elimination of patrol ships.

“It is awkward, but this was the only way forward, given Italy’s position, because nobody wanted the Sophia mission completely shut down,” said an EU diplomat.

This awkward attempt to reform Operation Sophia, points to a deeper issue regarding the reform of the EU’s “Dublin asylum rules,” which state that the country of first arrival must process asylum seekers. Many of these migrants arrive first at Southern EU states, especially Italy. But under Salvini, Rome has stated that they cannot process such large numbers, and the anti-migrant stance has in turn bolstered Salvini’s popularity.

Under the condition of anonymity, an EU diplomat told the AFP that “Rationality went out of the window a long time ago.”

“This is damage control, in the hope that once election season is over, we might actually come to our senses.”

Damage control may be an uphill battle. Recently, three teenage migrants allegedly hijacked an oil tanker heading toward Libya to change course towards Europe, considered by Malta to be an act of terrorism. Their trial is ongoing. The tanker, Elhiblu 1, had more than 100 migrants on board, all of whom have since been taken into custody. Salvini described it as “the first piracy on the high seas with migrants”, according to the Associated Press, but Hassiba Hadjsahraoui, of Doctors Without Borders, told the BBC’s Newsday programme that the incident showed the despair of people, who dared attempt the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean.

Italy and Malta have since agreed to cooperate more on migration, by embarking ‘on more intense and systematic consultations’ which include policy aspects related to the management of migratory flows.

Nor is Italy alone when it comes to rising anti-migrant sentiment. The leader of the Spanish far-right party Vox, Santiago Abascal,  believes that not only should “insurmountable walls” be built at the borders of Spain’s North African enclaves, to halt “the wave of illegal immigrants”, but that Morocco should pay for it. Many Moroccans have work permits in Spain, enabling them to cross into Europe more easily than other nationalities. And with routes from Libya being closed off, migrants of other nationalities are re-routing through Morocco and making the crossing into Spain at Gibraltar, which is now the preferred entry point for migrants seeking to enter Europe.

Abascal also wants to introduce measures to prevent NGOs from aiding migrants, or even rescuing them at sea. Primarily, he wants to create a “psychological barrier” to dissuade migration at all: “the great wall that we should be building is a psychological one, and consists of informing immigrants that those who enter illegally in Europe will never be able to regularise their situation, nor will they have the right to stay, nor will they have social assistance, nor will they be given a health card,” he insists.

Vox, similar to Salvini’s League, campaigns against immigration and “radical” feminism, and was first founded in late 2013. Vox garnered international attention, when they were the first far-right party to win seats in the Spanish Parliament since the late 70s, having won 11% of the votes (12 seats) in a regional election last December. Vox is expected to win a sizeable share of the vote in Spain’s general elections on April 28th, and could play as kingmaker in Spain’s fractured political landscape.

Anti-migrant sentiment also plays a role in the rise of Eurosceptic parties standing for election this May in the European Parliament.

Standing in opposition to anti-migrant sentiment, Pope Francis recently made a plea for the world to protect, accept, and integrate migrants, during his visit to Morocco. “Protection must first and foremost be ensured along migration routes, which, sadly, are often theatres of violence, exploitation and abuse of all kinds,” he said. Once they reach their destinations, they are then often faced with unacceptable “forms of collective expulsion,” such as in Italy and Hungary. He also urged migrants to learn the local languages and customs of their host countries.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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