Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 July 2019

EU suspends life-saving ship patrols in the Mediterranean

Operation Sophia has been extended but will now rely on air missions rather than ship patrols

Migrants, intercepted off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, wait to disembark from a rescue boat at dawn at the port of Malaga, southern Spain. REUTERS
Migrants, intercepted off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, wait to disembark from a rescue boat at dawn at the port of Malaga, southern Spain. REUTERS

The EU announced Wednesday it will suspend ship patrols that saved thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy, after pressures by the country’s anti-immigration government.

While Operation Sophia, the bloc's anti-smuggling operation in the Mediterranean, has been officially extended for six months beyond its expiry date next Sunday, it will now rely on air missions and coordination with Libya rather than ship patrols.

"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," an EU official said in a statement, according to Reuters.

The anti-immigration coalition government that took power in Rome last year had de facto already suspended rescue operations in the Mediterranean after it closed ports to NGO ships disembarking migrants saved at sea.

EU cooperation with Libya has led to a sharp reduction of the number of migrant arrivals, but human rights group decry the inhumane treatment migrants are facing in Libyan detention centres.

Nearly 2,300 people perished last year, according to United Nations figures, and the decision to suspend patrols could lead to more deaths at sea.

Operation Sophia is credited by EU governments with effectively dissuading people smugglers. No consent however could be reached on ship patrols due to deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini’s refusal to let Italy be the main point of disembarkation for Sophia’s patrol ships.

No other EU states came forward. Diplomats said countries including Spain, France and Germany signalled they were not willing to host more rescued people.

Military aspects of the role of air patrols have not yet been clarified. The new arrangement will involve additional training of the coast guard in Libya, where smugglers often openly operate to send people to Europe by sea.

Since the surge in arrivals in 2015, the EU has been increasingly restrictive on Mediterranean immigration.

The bloc has already curbed operations of EU aid groups and moved its own ships further north where fewer rescues take place.

Updated: March 27, 2019 05:09 PM

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