The EU is using warships to seize the boats that refugees are using to sail from Libya to Europe. This joint military operation was launched in June 2015, and was originally called “EUNAVFOR MED”. It has since been given a new name: “Operation Sophia”.
Officially, Operation Sophia is an operation against people-smuggling gangs (illegal business operations that charge refugees extortionate sums of money for places in unsafe boats). In reality, the seizing of boats is calculated to hinder refugees’ attempts to cross the Mediterranean.
QCEA previously reported on this subject in the August–September 2015 edition of Around Europe (QCEA’s newsletter). At the time of our previous report, the operation involved four warships, and was still at its initial, intelligence-gathering phase. On 7 October 2015 the operation progressed to its second phase, which involves intercepting, boarding, and seizing boats in international waters. There are now seven warships taking part in Operation Sophia: two provided by Germany, one by Belgium, one by France, one by Italy, one by Spain, and one by the UK. Operation Sophia received a boost on 9 October 2015, when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2240 — a resolution extending the EU’s legal authority to inspect and seize boats in international waters.
The decision to progress to the second phase required the unanimous approval of the Council of the EU, i.e. ministers from all 28 EU national governments had to agree to this decision. However, the Council’s records show that the decision was approved on the nod, without the ministers discussing it.
EU officials are now promoting Operation Sophia as a means of rescuing refugees from drowning. In fact, this is why they have renamed it “Operation Sophia”, after the baby daughter of a rescued refugee. Yet Operation Sophia is not a search-and-rescue operation, and to portray it as such is to tell a misleading half-truth. The Operation Sophia warships will indeed rescue any refugees they happen to find in danger of drowning, but this is incidental to the purpose of the operation, which is to deprive future refugees of access to boats.
Currently the EU’s legal authority to carry out Operation Sophia only extends to international waters. However, this could change. The two main factions in the Libyan civil war are negotiating a UN-backed peace settlement that would establish a new Libyan government — the talks suffered a recent setback when the parliament in Tobruk rejected a proposed deal, but there is still hope that the settlement will go ahead in some form. If it does go ahead, the new government will be under pressure to give the EU permission to extend Operation Sophia into Libyan territorial waters, and then onto Libyan soil. And this is a worrying prospect, because the settlement would, at best, lead to a fragile peace. Some of the armed groups in Libya (including the extreme Islamist group ISIL) would remain outside the control of the new government.
QCEA calls upon the EU to abandon Operation Sophia. This operation puts refugees’ lives in danger, and is a wholly inappropriate militaristic response to a humanitarian crisis.
Some particular causes for concern are:
(1) Refugees are at risk of being caught in the cross-fire between EU forces and people smugglers. Also, some of the people smugglers, in an effort to evade capture, may take refugees as hostages.
(2) The seizure of boats may lead to some refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean in conditions that are even more dangerous than at present. Flimsy dinghies are easier to hide than sturdier wooden boats, and so if EU forces are known to be seizing boats, this may encourage the people smugglers to rely more extensively on dinghies. If there is a shortage of boats, the people smugglers may respond by putting more refugees onto each boat, even though the boats are already dangerously overcrowded.
(3) Operation Sophia risks provoking further violence in Libya, just at the moment when there is hope for peace in that country. This would not only be disastrous for Libya, it would also pose another danger to refugees, because some refugees may end up stranded in Libya as a result of Operation Sophia. Moreover, any anti-EU resentment that Operation Sophia generates among the Libyan population would make it easier for armed groups hostile to the EU, such as ISIL, to recruit more members.
(4) There is no dedicated, EU-funded search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean. In order to be effective, a search-and-rescue operation needs to focus specifically on rescuing refugees from drowning (rather than on some other goal), and needs to concentrate its resources on the part of the Mediterranean near Libya, to ensure that each refugee in danger is rescued as soon as possible. Some charities, such as Médecins Sans Frontières, are running dedicated search-and-rescue operations (within the limits of their resources), but the EU is not doing so. The EU’s border control agency FRONTEX is engaging in some limited search-and-rescue activities as part of its maritime border patrol operation (Operation Triton), but since FRONTEX’s objective is border control, these activities are restricted to certain areas of the Mediterranean close to Europe.
The EU needs to change its policy. Operation Sophia should be halted urgently, and replaced by a dedicated, EU-funded search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean. As a longer-term solution, the EU should offer refugees a safe route into Europe, so that refugees no longer have any reason to try to cross the Mediterranean in unsafe boats.