Operation Sophia was quietly and officially extended until 30 September 2019 following longstanding negotiations among member states. Political and Security Committee (PSC) reached a flawed last-minute compromise on March 29th, the last working day for an extension of the operation which would otherwise officially closed/completed.
The decision was disclosed by a press release which further unfolded the temporary suspension of the deployment of naval assets. According to the information, the mandate would be implemented by air assets as well as reinforced support to the Libyan coast guard.
So, what we have at hand for the time being is an EUNAVFOR military operation mandate without naval assets, i.e., no NAVal FORce but the EU!
The fall of Gaddafi created a power vacuum that led to incessant civil war in Libya. This was coupled with the overall instability of the region which formed a migratory passage to Europe: Central Mediterranean Route. People, including and mostly those coming from sub-Saharan, fleeing from the civil wars, insecurity or simply seeking for a better future, made their way to the North in order to reach to the other side of Mediterranean. Italy, which became a foothold for migrants on their way to European states, had to start an operation to tackle the issue.
Operation Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) was carried out under these circumstances. However, pursuing such an operation was costly for a single country which was already suffering the burden of the increasing migrants for several years. Italy was demanding solidarity from her European counterparts in every occasion back then. As a response, the EU first launched Operation Triton, a FRONTEX border support operation with a broader area of responsibility but a narrower mandate and lesser assets, to support Italy to that end. Despite the warnings that the new EU operation would be insufficient for search and rescue endeavours, Italy finalised its one-year long Mare Nostrum operation.
Against this background, April 2015 represented the peak of longstanding human tragedies with around 1,250 deaths, some 800 in only one incident when an overcrowded vessel capsized off the coast of Libya. This gave rise to immense international pressure to the EU to take responsibility to tackle migratory flows at its doors and to take necessary precautions to prevent further humanitarian disasters through search and rescue operations. Surprisingly, the speed of the creation and the launch of the operation was unprecedented in EU standards.
Baptised initially EUNAVFOR Med, the operation renamed to Sophia when a pregnant migrant gave birth to a baby (also named Sophia) onboard of a German frigate Schleswig-Holstein dedicated to the Prussian Princess Sophia. That inevitably brought humanitarian as well as search and rescue aspect of the operation to the fore.
While search and rescue of the migrants in distress was the international ignitor, it has never been a part of the mandate, instead, only constituted a reference to international laws (such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea-SOLAS or the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue) that the operation should abide by.
The main objective of the operation was disrupting the business model of the human smugglers as a root cause. The operation was divided into phases to that end: surveillance of the smuggling networks (phase 1); boarding, searching, seizing and diverting vessels suspected of smuggling first in international waters (phase 2a) and later in (Libyan) territorial waters (phase 2b); disposing and rendering inoperable of the vessels and assets of the smugglers in the territory of the state (Libya)(phase 3). The mandate of the operation broadened successively with the implementation of the UN arms embargo, training of the Libyan coast guard, surveillance of illegal trafficking (mostly oil exports) and information-sharing of EU law enforcement agencies (FRONTEX, EUROPOL) with internationally recognized Libyan authorities (Government of National Accord-GNA) afterwards.
There was a kind of harmony both in launching and executing the operation which was broken with the empowerment of the populist governments, Italy being the leader in frustration to her iterant demands for diversifying disembarking ports. Far from being perfect, the operation and the EU was under criticism, sometimes severe, from a broad spectrum of actors, including fellow member states.
A report from the UK House of Lords, thus from one of the contributors of the operation, indicated that the operation is a failure in regard to achieving its main objective and the mandate. It argued that the irregular migration was increasing while aiming the opposite. Moreover, destructing smugglers’ adapted vessels lead to exploitation of unseaworthy vessels and thus to a tragic increase in deaths. Another report had already claimed that once the boats set sail, a naval operation cannot disrupt the business model of the human smugglers, that had to be done onshore.
Human rights organizations have always been wary of the real objective and critical of the implementation of Operation Sophia. In this regard, Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged that the EU policies put refugees at risk; thus severely criticising the EU-Turkey agreement; cooperation with Libyan authorities which contribute abuse of migrants; as well as instrumentalising Partnership Framework agreements with third countries in Africa, Middle East and Asia all of which strive for limiting irregular migration rather than committing basic human rights. In the same vein, Amnesty International (AI) criticised the way the operation is conducted as it forced smugglers to use less sea-worthy vessels, risking refugees’ lives; urged that rescue efforts should be closer to Libyan coast to save more lives; and denounced that rescuing migrants is not a concerted effort, but rather “relentless series of emergency responses”.
The modus operandi of the operation which is shaped by Italian leadership (operational headquarter is at Rome with an Italian Commander as well as a force headquarter at sea with another Italian admiral) was also a source of discomfort among the participating member states. Recently, Germany decided not to replace her frigate (somehow a withdrawal) in response to Italy’s resistance to allow disembarkation of rescued refugees.
Italy’s unwillingness is even reflected in the operational documents. In a series of restricted reports (covering period between 2016-2018) which PoliticoEU had published in late February revealed that officials even made a very unusual offer: Suspending search and rescue responsibilities to focus on anti-smuggling operations. These reports also admit that operational success is limited due to many reasons; understaffing, underequipping, underfunding as well as partial exploitation of the mandate. Operation Sophia could not proceed to even phase 2b (boarding, searching, seizing and diverting vessels suspected of smuggling in Libyan territorial waters) which required the consent of both GNA as well as UN Security Council. Lack of a green light from both, Operation Sophia operated only at high sea rather than Libyan territorial waters or coasts which are critical for anti-smuggling operations.
Operation Sophia has been conducted in a very complex environment of insecurity, terrorism and civil wars as a result of falling dictators, harsh socio-economic conditions as well as environmental changes. As a military operation, it also has a very political agenda which strictly limits its efficiency, as put by an Italian MEP. In this regard, Italy’s reaction could be understood to a certain extent in the absence of EU-wide solidarity on migration.
Nevertheless, the populist government undermines not only the EU’s but also Italy’s endeavours. Irregular migration as well as the humanitarian tragedy at sea is a real concern which is likely to last at least in the short to middle term, especially considering the latest military escalation in Libya which could easily trigger a new migratory flow, with or without external military intervention.
Despite all the flaws, especially regarding criticism on basic human rights, Operation Sophia has saved 49,000 lives, led to the arrest of more than 140 suspected human traffickers and destroyed more than 500 smuggling boats to date. Almost all of the member states (26 in total) have been contributing to the operation in an acceptable harmony under CSDP umbrella. These results may not be perfect, yet, they present the best we have.
All in all, the EU should revisit its decision without further delay. This includes not only the immediate reversion of the bizarre EUNAVFOR (EU operation without NAVal FORce) mandate but also overall EU approach and reaction to migratory crises. While military can provide support, it’s crystal clear that a sole military action is not the perfect solution for a migratory crisis. Thus, the EU should decide whether to continue with a military operation or a civilian mission.
Be it military or civilian, a robust, adequately equipped and manned mission/operation with a better-framed mandate is paramount while internal harmony as well as EU-wide solidarity are keys for a true solution.