Operation Sophia: a failed mission Contents


Judged against its mandate, the EU’s naval mission, Operation Sophia, has failed to achieve its objective of “contributing to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean”. Irregular migration into Europe on the central Mediterranean route increased by 18% in 2016, and by another 19% in the first six months of 2017 compared to 2016.1

As we concluded in our report of May 2016, the mission faces “an impossible challenge”. Faced with rising migration across the central Mediterranean, there is considerable pressure on EU governments to ‘do something’. But a naval mission is the wrong tool to tackle irregular migration which begins onshore: once the boats have set sail, it is too late to undermine the business of people smuggling. An unintended consequence of Operation Sophia’s destruction of vessels has been that the smugglers have adapted, sending migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels. This has led to a tragic increase in deaths—2,150 in 2017 to date.2

The existence of a unified government in Libya, able to provide security across the country and work with the EU on migration, is a precondition for meaningful action against people smuggling networks onshore. The Government of National Accord cannot, at present, fulfil this role. We are encouraged by the recent discussions towards modifying the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA)—to secure the support of the House of Representatives—and welcome renewed UK and EU support to the political process. Nonetheless, political and security conditions in Libya are unlikely to improve sufficiently to allow onshore operations by the EU any time soon. We therefore see little reason to renew the mandate of Operation Sophia in its current form beyond July 2017.

This is not an argument for doing nothing. Search and rescue is a vital humanitarian obligation, which the EU must continue to fulfil, using more suitable vessels than the high-end air and naval assets of Operation Sophia. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of recent efforts by the EU to train the Libyan coastguard, but we note that this training could be maintained outside the mandate of Operation Sophia.

The EU and the UK should also maintain their counter-migration efforts across Sub-Saharan Africa, including outreach and development work in source and transit countries, law enforcement co-operation, and assisting the voluntary repatriation of migrants from Libya. Although we did not investigate this in detail, supporting economic development and good governance in these countries is the only way that mass migration can be addressed in the long term. Meanwhile, should there be more propitious security conditions in Libya following negotiations on the LPA, the EU may be able to secure political agreement with the Libyan Government for a new Common Security and Defence Policy mission to combat irregular migration on the southern border. Planning for such a mission should be undertaken, for implementation as and when the political and security conditions in Libya allow.

1 Italian Ministry of the Interior, Statistical dashboard of 30 June 2017: http://www.libertaciviliimmigrazione.dlci.interno.gov.it/sites/default/files/allegati/cruscotto_statistico_giornaliero_del_30_giugno_2017.pdf [accessed 4 July 2017]

2 IOM, ‘Recorded deaths in the Mediterranean Sea by route, January 1–July 2, 2017’: https://missingmigrants.iom.int/mediterranean [accessed 4 July 2017] Figures as of 2 July 2017.

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