Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean: an impossible challenge Contents


“Migrants in boats are symptoms, not causes, of the problem.”1

Since 2014, Europe has been struggling to respond to an exceptional number of irregular but voluntary migrants2 seeking to cross European borders. On 19 April 2015, off-the-coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, a boat carrying nearly 700 migrants capsized and almost all its passengers drowned. The Lampedusa tragedy changed EU policy. Four days later, the European Council pledged to take steps to prevent further loss of life at sea, fight the people smugglers and prevent illegal migration flows. In May, a new naval mission—Operation Sophia—was deployed in the central Mediterranean. It currently patrols a vast area of the high seas off the coast of Libya to Italy, gathering information, rescuing migrants, and destroying boats used by smugglers.

Critics suggested that search and rescue activity by Operation Sophia would act as a magnet to migrants and ease the task of smugglers, who would only need their vessels to reach the high seas; these propositions have some validity. On the other hand, search and rescue are, in our view, vital humanitarian obligations. We commend Operation Sophia for its success in this task.

The mission does not, however, in any meaningful way deter the flow of migrants, disrupt the smugglers’ networks, or impede the business of people smuggling on the central Mediterranean route. The arrests that Operation Sophia has made to date have been of low-level targets, while the destruction of vessels has simply caused the smugglers to shift from using wooden boats to rubber dinghies, which are even more unsafe. There are also significant limits to the intelligence that can be collected about onshore smuggling networks from the high seas. There is therefore little prospect of Operation Sophia overturning the business model of people smuggling.

The weakness of the Libyan state has been a key factor underlying the exceptional rate of irregular migration on the central Mediterranean route in recent years. While plans for two further phases would see Operation Sophia acting in Libyan territorial waters and onshore, we are not confident that the new Libyan Government of National Accord will be in a position to work closely with the EU and its Member States any time soon.

In other words, however valuable as a search and rescue mission, Operation Sophia does not, and we argue, cannot, deliver its mandate. It responds to symptoms, not causes.

We recognise the broader, strategic challenges of migration policy, as considered in our report, EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling (November 2015).3 Migration to Europe is part of a much larger phenomenon of the mass movement of people globally. Long-standing grievances, both economic and political, as well as the recent deterioration in security conditions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have directed flows of people towards safer havens and better living conditions in Europe. Mediterranean migration has become a global issue, connecting Europe with sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA, and funding a lucrative criminal economy. By virtue of geographical proximity, Europe is at the front line of this trend, but this is a global issue with consequences well beyond the European continent, affecting all developed economies.

1 Peter Roberts, RUSI, Militarising the EU Migration Plan: A Flawed Approach to Migration (7 July 2015): https://rusi.org/publication/newsbrief/militarising-eu-migration-plan-flawed-approach-0 [accessed 5 April 2016]

2 ‘Migrant’ is widely used as an umbrella term to denote both economic migrants and refugees, and we use the term accordingly in this report.

3 European Union Committee, EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling (4th Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 46)

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