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

Chapter 3: Assessment of Operation Sophia

Modus operandi of human smuggling

22.In order to assess the effectiveness of the mission, we sought to understand the mechanics of the business model of human smuggling and the modus operandi of the smugglers. We focused on the smuggling networks operating out of Libya.

Business model

23.Human smuggling is often part of a broader criminal enterprise. A report by Europol (February 2016) explained that more than 90% of migrants travelling to the EU used the facilitation services provided by smugglers.31 In most cases, these services were offered and provided by criminal groups, although we note that the provision of these services may not be illegal in all the countries of origin. Frontex found that these criminal groups were, in some cases, linked to other criminal economies, including drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings, and property crime. 32

24.Criminal networks often co-opt both illegal and legal businesses, such as hotels, car rentals, and travel agencies, to support their activities and launder money. Corruption is a “key facilitating factor for migrant smuggling.”33

25.Europol further added that the “group of people vulnerable for labour or sexual exploitation is increasing”, and that “these types of exploitation will increase in the upcoming years.”34

26.Our witnesses considered the nature of the criminal activity on the eastern and central Mediterranean routes. On the eastern Mediterranean route, Mr Edward Hobart, Migration Envoy, Europe Directorate, FCO, judged that while there was “plenty of activity that [was] in the grey market or illegal or irresponsible”, at the moment there were no “large-scale organised crime groups.”35 On the other hand, we note that the Financial Times has reported that the Turkish mafia dominates the smuggling trade.36

27.Mr Hobart did see a likelihood of an “increase in criminal activity.” He explained that “a symptom of better control … at the border, will be an increased opportunity for organised crime.”37 As EU borders become more challenging to navigate, migrants will be more likely to turn to smugglers to facilitate their illegal crossings.

28.Lieutenant General Wolfgang Wosolsobe, Director General, EU Military Staff highlighted two types of smuggling networks: one focused on the Libyan coast, and a further wider network originating in countries in West Africa and the Middle East—the source of migration flows—with migrants facilitated through the transit countries.38 There was “no evidence of a general oversight” among smugglers acting on the central Mediterranean coast, though “a degree of loose co-ordination” existed between different networks.39

Modus operandi

29.The analysis from Europol is that smuggling networks are multi-tiered. The organiser or leader is usually located in a key migration hub and is responsible for overall co-ordination. The leaders usually operate remotely, and only maintain contact with a limited number of confidants.40

30.Local or regional leaders set the price of facilitation services and carry out the co-ordination activities, such as booking flights and facilitating travel. These local leaders hand over the migrants to the next associates along the route, who are responsible for ensuring travel and other services, before the migrants are handed over to the next associates in turn. Local cells are tasked with buying or renting vehicles or recruiting and co-ordinating drivers. Low-level contacts are also used as drivers, crew members, scouts or recruiting agents. These contacts typically operate as part of the network for a limited time only, and are changed regularly.41

31.This picture is consistent with the analysis of Amnesty International UK (AIUK). Mr Steve Symonds, Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director, AIUK, explained that smuggling networks consisted of “people who sit at the top of a big chain of loose connections, who are no doubt making huge profits and probably go nowhere near anyone they are smuggling.” At the lowest level are individuals who own a boat or property to house people, or act as escorts across the border.42

The smuggling operation out of Libya

32.The business of smuggling is deeply embedded in, and critical to, the Libyan economy. The high number of migrants along the North African coast has enabled the development of a lucrative coastal trade of smuggling which in 2015 was valued at “$255–323 million per year in Libya alone.”43

33.Smugglers are part of the fabric of Libyan political and economic life. Mr Patrick Kingsley, Migration Correspondent, Guardian Media Group, explained that smugglers are often “connected to militias”, “have important roles to play in their local communities”, and “provide quite a lot of money to the local community”. The “people at the top are going to be protected to some extent, even by people who are major players in Libyan politics.”44

34.Migrants are recruited via social media, by facilitators who find migrants, gain their trust and introduce them to smugglers or their associates, or by travel agency services run by smuggling networks.45 Migrants are first gathered in safe houses near the beach, where they stay for a period ranging from a few days to months. On the night of the launch migrants are escorted to the beach to board the vessels. This can require the bribing of officials at check-points en route.

35.Mr Kingsley explained that two kinds of boats are used in Libya: wooden fishing boats and rubber dinghies. Migrants either depart on board smaller boats, which then transport them to the wooden boats waiting a few miles out at sea, or they depart for Europe in rubber dinghies straight from the beach itself.46 Wooden boats are more valuable because they can carry more people, are more resilient to bad weather, and can be re-used if recovered.

Composition of the mission

36.Italy is the lead nation for Operation Sophia, and hosts the operational headquarters in Rome. The Operation Commander is Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino of the Italian navy.

37.The composition of the mission varies according to the rotation of ships and assets assigned by the Member States, as well as the needs of the mission as assessed by the Operation Commander. Starting in June 2015, in Phase 1, the mission could count on four naval units (the Italian flagship Cavour, two German and one UK ship) and five air assets (one French and one Luxembourg plane, two Italian and one UK helicopter).47 For Phase 2, starting in October, the mission had five surface naval units and six air assets including planes and helicopters.48 In October–November 2015, when the Operation Commander assessed that migrant numbers would be highest (the surge), the Operation could count on nine ships.49 In March 2016, Mr Lindsay confirmed that the Operation Commander was “content with the resources that he has at the moment.”50

38.The UK provided the survey ship HMS Enterprise to the assessment phase. When the Operation Commander requested a surge of assets in October and November, the UK also contributed the “frigate HMS Richmond with a Lynx helicopter, ScanEagle UAV and Royal Marines boarding party. This constituted two out of the nine ships at the peak of the surge.”51 Mr Lindsay added that the UK had also offered HMS Bulwark as a search and rescue asset in advance of the operational stage of the mission. Furthermore, “a number of officers ha[d] been seconded to the Italian-led operational headquarters”.52

39.The question of whether the resources the mission deploys are adequate is highly pertinent. We note that in Phases 1 and 2A, Operation Sophia is patrolling an area of operations of 525,000 square nautical miles—”wider than six times the extension of Italy”.53 Mr Peter Roberts, Senior Research Fellow, Sea Power and Maritime Studies, Royal United Services Institute, noted that on some days:

“six ships and four or five sorties of fixed-wing aircraft, plus unmanned aerial vehicles, [are] trying to cover an area the size of mainland Europe and police all activity in it based on those limited platforms.”54

Mr Lindsay responded that the idea was “not to patrol the whole of the Libyan coastline” but to identify the “launch points used by the smuggling networks and to be at those points to tackle them.” This was achievable but “only with the sophisticated intelligence picture” that Operation Sophia was building.55

40.Mr Roberts expressed two further concerns about the resourcing model. He pointed out that as Operation Sophia had “no fixed forces”, its assets “rotate in and out”. There was no “consistency in the force’s design”, because the vessels at the mission’s disposal depended “very much on the short-term political needs of individual nations.”56 The assets were also, in Mr Roberts’ view, too sophisticated for Operation Sophia’s mission. He told us that aircraft designed to hunt nuclear submarines in the north Atlantic are being used to hunt small rubber dinghies. This, he considered, was probably a “wasted resource.”57 He suggested that the EU should use “much cheaper commercial vessels” for the search and rescue elements of the mission.58

41.Mr Lindsay countered that while commercial vessels had a role to play in search and rescue and humanitarian work, in order to break the smuggling networks the mission required the “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities that these high-end vessels and aircrafts provide”.59

Assessment criteria

42.We assessed the mission against its own military strategic objectives, and against two further stated aims of the European Council: reducing the flow of migrants, and search and rescue at sea.

Military strategic objectives in Phase 1

43.Phase 1 of Operation Sophia was launched on 22 June 2015 and proceeded until October 2015. It focused on monitoring and intelligence gathering.

44.Lieutenant General Wosolsobe pointed to two successful outcomes of Phase 1. Processes had been “developed to gain information from the migrants”, in order “to determine not only their particular circumstances, but how and by whom their passage was effected.” A second result was the “identification of a network that exists to traffic women and children with a view to their sexual exploitation.” The EU had “built up a much improved understanding of the traffickers’ networks, personnel and tactics.” Operation Sophia had been able to contribute to a number of EU, UN and national programmes to counter trafficking for sexual exploitation.60

45.On the other hand, Mr Roberts was less positive about the added value of Operation Sophia in intelligence gathering. It was doing “nothing new”; “you could go to an Italian or Libyan fisherman and glean exactly the same kind of information that the naval and air forces have been gathering”.61 He criticised the use of naval forces that had “no experience of intelligence-gathering against organisations ashore”, and were “unfamiliar with some of the forensic evidence-gathering required to provide the linkages higher up the chain.”62

Military strategic objectives in Phase 2A (high seas)

46.On 14 September 2015, the European Council noted that the conditions had been met for the mission to proceed to the next phase, and on 7 October it transitioned to Phase 2A, operation on the high seas. On 9 October 2015, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2240, paragraph 5 of which permits Member States to inspect, on the high seas:

“any un-flagged vessels that they have reasonable grounds to believe have been, are being, or imminently will be used by organised criminal enterprises for migrant smuggling or human trafficking from Libya, including inflatable boats, rafts and dinghies”.63

If those vessels are confirmed as being used for migrant smuggling or human trafficking, Member States are authorised to take “further action … including disposal.”64

Arresting smugglers

47.Mr Lindsay pointed to the “tangible effect” of Operation Sophia: “80 smuggling vessels so far have been destroyed, over 50 suspected smugglers have been arrested”.65

48.Apprehended smugglers are taken to Italy where the judicial process is led by the Italian authorities. Lieutenant General Wosolsobe confirmed that smugglers had been “detained in Italy for ongoing juridical processes and eventual prosecution.”66 “Much care”, he asserted, had “been taken to ensure a legally watertight process, using the Italian law enforcement authorities throughout.” To date, “no prosecution has been dismissed due to a failure of process.”67

49.Other witnesses voiced doubts about the value of Operation Sophia’s arrests. Mr Kingsley said people “were being arrested before Operation Sophia was created”—Operation Sophia was not a “game-changer in that regard.”68 Mr Roberts dismissed the number of arrests as “incredibly small” in comparison to the scale of smuggling on the central Mediterranean route.69

Destruction of boats

50.Operation Sophia’s destruction of boats prevents their reuse by smugglers. Mr Lindsay told us that there was a “deterrent effect in that smugglers are being apprehended and their boats are being destroyed.”70 Lieutenant General Wosolsobe added that, with the exception of one incident where a maritime unit was prevented by armed men from destroying a boat, the mission had “succeeded in destroying all the boats” it had captured.71

51.The smugglers have adapted. Lieutenant General Wosolsobe said that the mission had “forced the traffickers to amend their business model”: the more expensive wooden or fibre-glass boats were no longer used, as they represented a “significant financial loss” when they were destroyed. Instead, smugglers and traffickers are bulk-buying inflatable rubber craft from China. These “have less carrying capacity and are more limited by sea conditions”;72 in other words, they are more unsafe. There is no legal basis for preventing shipments of these rubber crafts into Libya.

Tackling the smuggling networks

52.In a letter to Sir William Cash MP, Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, the Rt Hon David Lidington MP, Minister for Europe, noted that the Operation Commander argued that Operation Sophia “had a deterrent effect”, as smuggling networks could “no longer operate with impunity in international waters.”73

53.On the other hand, we heard that Operation Sophia had apprehended only low value targets. Mr Kingsley informed us that once the boats reached international waters, “the major Libyan smugglers are no longer involved in the boat journey.” By that stage, it was “mostly the migrants who are on these ships and some very low-level smugglers”: the people “driving the rubber boats are usually co-opted migrants.”74 This accorded with the accounts received by AIUK that many of those intercepted and believed to be smugglers were “probably just refugees who have been nominated as the person who takes charge of the boat.”75

54. As a result, witnesses questioned the impact of Operation Sophia on the smuggling networks. Mr Symonds said that “much of the activity inevitably ends up being targeted at the people right at the bottom”, many of whose involvement was merely opportunistic. This “is not tackling the smuggling network itself; that still exists.”76 Mr Roberts explained that the “small-time operators” apprehended by Operation Sophia could be “replaced within 10 or 15 minutes … They are not the people behind the business model, so it is making no impact.”77 He added that “linking the small fry to the kingpins is almost impossible”, and foresaw no success in overturning this particular business model through Operation Sophia.78

Deterring migrant flows

55.There was a decline in the number of people travelling via the central Mediterranean route between September 2015 and early January 2016. On 20 January the Minister wrote that for the first time in three years, there had been a “9% reduction in the total number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.”79

56.A number of factors could explain the decline in flows on the central Mediterranean route in this period. Antonello de Renziz Sonnino, spokesperson for Operation Sophia, said that the shift in trends depended on several factors,

“including deterrence through the action of many naval assets deployed to the area, enhanced border control activities by the Egyptian authorities, and the lower risk associated with the Eastern/Balkan route.”80

57.In an interview in December 2015 the Operation Commander of Operation Sophia, Rear Admiral Credendino, attributed the decline in numbers (in the preceding two months) to the fact that more migrants were taking the safer eastern Mediterranean/Western Balkans route, as well as the deterrent effect of Operation Sophia.81 Mr Lindsay agreed that some of the reduction in migrants using the central Mediterranean route “might be attributed to the opening up of other routes”.82

58.Mr Symonds did not regard missions like Operation Sophia as a deterrent. While such operations could deter a smuggler from taking a particular route, this was not same as deterring smugglers from finding another route, or people from turning to smugglers in search of another route.83 Dr Natalie Roberts, Adviser on Refugees and Migration in Europe, Médecins Sans Frontières, informed us that “people know very quickly when borders are closed … if one route closes, another one opens.”84

59.The most recent figures show that crossings on the central Mediterranean route increased in the first two months of 2016, compared to the same period in 2015. Mr Kingsley informed us that around 7,800 migrants had crossed from Libya to Italy in the first two months of 2015, which had increased to 9,000 for the comparable period in 2016.85 A variety of factors might be responsible for this increase, including the knock-on effect of sealing borders along the Western Balkans route.86

60.More generally, Mr Symonds was sceptical of the EU’s efforts to barricade its external border. Analysis had shown that stronger policing of the EU’s external borders had effected only “the movement of ever larger numbers of people around different routes by different journeys, usually at greater danger and cost to them, so of greater profit to smugglers.”87

61.A criticism of search and rescue missions has been that by detecting and rescuing migrants and transporting their passengers to European ports, Operation Sophia may be feeding hopes of safe passage. This criticism was levelled by some Member States, including the UK Government, at the search and rescue efforts by the Italian operation Mare Nostrum (October 2013–November 2014).88 It is also suggested that an unintended consequence of Operation Sophia is that, by operating beyond European coastal waters, the mission is assisting the job of smugglers, who now only need their boats to reach the high seas, rather than EU waters.

Search and rescue at sea

62.Search and rescue at sea is an international obligation, and vessels assigned to Operation Sophia have been ready and equipped to meet their commitments under the International Convention on Safety of Law at Sea (SOLAS) and the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). In March 2016 Mr Lindsay informed us that the total number of people rescued by Operation Sophia had reached nearly 9,000.89

63.Operation Sophia was “doing more or less the same thing that previous operations by Italy and Europe did prior to its establishment”, according to Mr Kingsley. He concluded that Operation Sophia was “essentially a search and rescue operation by another name.”90 Mr Symonds was satisfied with the EU’s search and rescue effort in the central Mediterranean. It matched the prior Italian efforts (operation Mare Nostrum) in terms of quantity of vessels, and was operating in waters close enough to save lives. “People still drown, but it is none the less an effective search and rescue mission.”91 Mr Roberts praised the operation as “doing a great job in saving lives at sea”.92

64.Anxiety was expressed about the future capacity for search and rescue. Mr Symonds feared that as Operation Sophia became “more targeted at tackling smugglers directly”, it “might undermine the search and rescue mission”.93 Dr Roberts was “very concerned that a move away from search and rescue would lead to much higher death rates at sea.”94 Dr Roberts also pointed to the unintended consequence of the shift to rubber dinghies, of increasing the danger of the journey for the migrants: “dinghies are so much more unsafe, more needed to be rescued”.95

Conclusions and recommendations

65.The intelligence gathering phase of Operation Sophia has been useful, but only limited situational awareness can be gathered on the high seas. Significant gaps remain in Operation Sophia’s understanding of the smugglers’ networks and the modus operandi of those networks in Libya.

66.Operation Sophia’s concept of operations and mandate were agreed in advance of the intelligence-gathering phase. This was not an ideal way to plan for the mission. The mission will require high-quality intelligence throughout its mandate; this will in turn have force generation implications.

67.The intentions and objectives set out for Operation Sophia exceed what can realistically be achieved. A mission acting only on the high seas is not able to disrupt smuggling networks, which thrive on the political and security vacuum in Libya, and extend through Africa.

68.Operation Sophia is viewed by NGOs in the humanitarian field as a search and rescue mission. It is undertaking valuable work in search and rescue at sea, but this is not its core mandate.

31 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU (February 2016) p2: available at https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/EMSC_launch [accessed 4 April 2016]

32 Ibid, p11

33 Ibid, p12

34 Ibid, p12

35 Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2016 (Session 2015–16), Q 4 (Edward Hobart)

36 Mehul Srivastava, ‘Organised crime moves in on migrant smuggling trade in Turkey’, Financial Times (13 December 2015): available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/17cf4fc0-9ffa-11e5-8613–08e211ea5317.html#axzz477Itpiyo [accessed 28 April 2016]

37 Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2016 (Session 2015–16), Q 4 (Edward Hobart)

38 Q 29 and Q 30. The EU Military Staff is a part of the European External Action Service, and provides in-house military expertise for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, including strategic advice and assessment of Operation Sophia.

40 Europol, Migrant smuggling in the EU (February 2016) p9: available at https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/EMSC_launch [accessed 4 April 2016]

41 Ibid, p10

43 ‘Libya: a growing hub for Criminal Economies and Terrorist Financing in the Trans-Sahara’, The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (11 May 2015): http://www.globalinitiative.net/download/global-initiative/Libya%20Criminal%20Economies%20in%20the%20trans-Sahara%20-%20May%202015.pdf [accessed 21 April 2016]

45 ‘Rubber boats for Libyan human smugglers imported from China, transhipped through Malta’, Malta Independent (22 February 2016): http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2016–02-20/local-news/Rubber-boats-for-Libyan-human-smugglers-imported-from-China-transhipped-through-Malta-6736153656 [accessed 21 April 2016]

47 European Union External Action, ‘EUNAVFOR MED FORCE fully operational’ (28 July 2015): http://eeas.europa.eu/csdp/missions-and-operations/eunavfor-med/press-releases/20150728_en.htm [accessed 21 April 2016]

48 European Union External Action , ‘Factsheet European Union Naval Force: Mediterranean Operation Sophia’ (23 March 2016): http://www.eeas.europa.eu/csdp/missions-and-operations/eunavfor-med/pdf/factsheet_eunavfor_med_en.pdf [accessed 21 April 2016]

49 Letter from the Rt Hon David Lidington to Sir William Cash, Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, (20 January 2016)

51 Letter from the Rt Hon David Lidington to Sir William Cash, Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee (20 January 2016)

52 Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2016 (Session 2015–16), Q 5 (Richard Lindsay)

53 ‘EUNAVFOR MED OP SOPHIA; A contribution towards disrupting the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Central Mediterranean’, Impetus: Magazine of the EU Military Staff, EEAS, Brussels (Autumn/Winter 2015): http://www.eeas.europa.eu/csdp/structures-instruments-agencies/eu-military-staff/documents/impetus_n20.pdf [accessed 21 April 2016]

63 United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2240 (9 October 2015): http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_res_2240.pdf [accessed 4 April 2016]

64 United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2240, para 8 (9 October 2015): http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_res_2240.pdf [accessed 4 April 2016]

70 Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2016 (Session 2015–16), 5 (Richard Lindsay)

71 Q 17 The current mandate does not include force protection or a mandate to use force. Lieutenant General Wosolsobe told us that “the inherent right of self-defence provides sufficient scope to permit the execution of the mission on the high seas”. He described the “de-escalatory posture of the unit” in this incident as “entirely proper”, and noted that the vessel in question was “intercepted and sunk by other units a few days later”. Should the mission move into Phase 2B, this would result in an “increased threat level”, and he expected that “a suitably modified set of rules of engagement” would be authorised by the EU Political and Security Committee. 22

73 Letter from the Rt Hon David Lidington to Sir William Cash, Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee, (20 January 2016)

75 Q 11 (Steve Symonds)

79 Letter from the Rt Hon David Lidington to Sir William Cash, Chairman of the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee (20 January 2016)

80 ‘Operation Sophia’, Informazioni della Difesa (2 March 2015): http://www.difesa.it/InformazioniDellaDifesa/periodico/periodico_2015/Documents/R4_2015/id_04_2015_operation_sophia.pdf [accessed 27 April 2016]

81 EU naval operation Sophia saved 5, 700 lives, EU observer, 2 December 2015: https://euobserver.com/migration/131345 [accessed 21 April 2016]

82 Oral evidence taken on 21 January 2016 (Session 2015–16), Q 5 (Richard Lindsay)

86 ‘Paths to Europe: As a key route closes, migrants look for others’, Financial Times (9 March 2016): available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f5418000-e5f3-11e5-bc31-138df2ae9ee6.html#axzz42ylNrFx5 [accessed 27 April 2016]

88 Rt Hon Baroness Anelay of St John DBE, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stated in October 2014 that the UK Government did not support search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, because “we believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing”. ‘Why Britain won’t save drowning migrants in the Mediterranean’, Washington Post (28 October 2014): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/10/28/why-britain-wont-save-drowning-migrants-in-the-mediterranean [accessed 27 April 2016]

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