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Operation Sophia: a failed mission Contents

Chapter 3: An assessment of Operation Sophia in Phase 2A

Phase 2A

16.In our previous report, we assessed Operation Sophia against its military strategic objectives for Phase 1 (intelligence gathering) and Phase 2A (arresting smugglers, the destruction of boats, and tackling the smuggling networks), and against the two additional stated aims of the European Council: reducing the flow of migrants, and search and rescue at sea.25 We follow the same approach in this report for the current phase, adding the two additional “supporting tasks” to our assessment.26

Arresting smugglers

17.Mr Edward Hobart, Migration Envoy, Europe Directorate, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said that Operation Sophia had “arrested 109 smugglers” to date.27 He told us that “the people who were apprehended were mainly lower down the food chain in criminal groups”.28 One of the arrests, however, was “particularly significant—an Eritrean people smuggler”. While he could not comment further on the case, which was “subject to a legal process in Italy … we believe that we have at least one leader”.29 We note that as of 19 June, the number of apprehended smugglers had risen to 110.30

Destruction of boats

18.Mr Hobart told us that Operation Sophia had “destroyed 414 boats” to date.31 As of 19 June 2017, this number had risen to 452.32

Tackling the smuggling networks

19.Mr Hobart said the business model of migrant smuggling on the central Mediterranean route had “responded to the people being detained and the boats being apprehended” by Operation Sophia. This change—as we noted in our previous report33—had led to the smugglers “using different kinds of boats, not getting as far as where Operation Sophia is, and not sending them out with escorts from the smuggling group”. He told us that it was now “very rare” for boats capable of transporting more than 100 people to depart from Libya. Instead, “inflatable boats [were] being picked up 12 miles off the coast … rather than larger vessels of maybe 500 or 600 people that get to the centre of the Mediterranean”. The larger boats “have been stopped by Operation Sophia”34.

20.This change in the business model has made the crossing more dangerous for migrants. The Joint Communication noted that “the fact that … dinghies now account for 70% of all boats leaving the Libyan coast contributes to making journeys increasingly dangerous and to the rise in the number of deaths at sea”.35 This is consistent with the finding of our previous report.36

21.Mr Hobart said that intelligence gathering and sharing was also ongoing: Operation Sophia was “trying to work with the police and the Ministry of Interior on understanding the intelligence angle”, in order to add “intelligence on the land about how smuggling groups are working” to the “intelligence from the sea” that it had gathered.37

22.Assessing the impact of the mission in Phase 2A on the smugglers’ business model, Mr Jones said that “the Operation Commander himself has said that he considers Operation Sophia to have had a deterrent effect against the smuggling networks, which in his view can no longer operate with impunity in international waters.” Mr Hobart, however, acknowledged that Operation Sophia “has altered the business model, but it has clearly not reduced the numbers”, and that “The model is not broken”.38

23.Mr Joseph Walker-Cousins, Senior Fellow, the Institute for Statecraft, was more critical, arguing that Operation Sophia was incentivising failure: “Engagement at maritime level, without engaging on the land borders, feeds the process … picking up migrants in the water incentivises traffickers not even to intend to try to get their cargo to the other side of the sea, because all they need to do is get them out 100 kilometres or so and they will be picked up.”39 The smugglers would “continue to do what they do as long as they get paid.”40 We note that Libya’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (22.2km) from the coastline, and that boats are regularly picked up in international waters as close as 30km from Libya.

24.Mr Walker-Cousins said that the business model of smuggling through the central Mediterranean route was “a business that has built up alongside something that was happening anyway—the movement of peoples”. Engagement by the EU and Operation Sophia was “too little and too late along the pipeline”. He said that there were “potentially up to 1 million migrants, if not more … already in the pipeline coming from central Africa and the Horn of Africa”, along what was an “increasingly well established” route.41 In source and transit countries, “local entities, be they tribes, militias or criminal gangs, are servicing their patch or portion of that pipeline”.42 This view is consistent with evidence we heard in 2015 from Professor George Joffe, Visiting Professor, King’s College London, who said that pre-existing smuggling networks across the Sahara were able to operate unconstrained in the current security conditions in Libya.43 It also coincides with evidence to our last inquiry that local militias profit from people smuggling.44 We discuss ways to tackle this “pipeline” in Chapter 5.

25.Amnesty International UK told us that the EU’s “focus on Libya in particular, or border security and stopping migration in general does not address [the] root causes” of irregular migration, but rather “risks exacerbating them by encouraging [European] governments to fail or refuse to meet their human rights obligations … thereby giving further opportunity for smugglers and other abusers”.45

Deterring migrant flows

26.Operation Sophia appears to have little effect in deterring migrant flows. According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the central Mediterranean route “faces persistent pressure”—detections of irregular migrants on the central Mediterranean route “had never been so high” as in 2016,46 when 181,436 people arrived in Europe by this route, an increase of 18% on 2015 (when the figure was 153,842).47 The three principal nationalities in 2016 were Nigerians (37,554), Eritreans (20,721), and Guineans (13,550).48 In 2015, the three main nationalities were Eritreans (38,791), Nigerians (21,914), and Somalis (12,430).49

27.We note that the numbers crossing on the central Mediterranean route in 2016 were almost equal to the numbers using the eastern Mediterranean route, from Turkey to Greece (182,287). Migrants using the latter route decreased significantly compared to 2015 (885,386), largely as a result of the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan agreed in November 2015.50

28.Just over half of those who arrived in Italy on the central Mediterranean route in 2016 requested asylum. Amnesty International UK drew our attention to the fact that some migrants are from “key areas of ongoing political crisis and conflict … affected by substantial drought and famine”, including northeast Nigeria.51 The Joint Communication, Migration on the Central Mediterranean route—managing flows, saving lives, noted: “Although migration has always taken place, this appears to be a structural movement from Sub-Saharan Africa and there is no indication these trends could change until the economic and political/security situation in the countries of origin improves.”52

29.84,879 people have crossed on the central Mediterranean into Italy so far in 2017.53 We also note that there was a significant increase in Bangladeshis arriving in Italy via the central Mediterranean route. Bangladeshis were the second largest nationality arriving in the first five months of 2017.54

Search and rescue at sea

30.The Joint Communication reiterated that: “The EU maintains its humanitarian imperative to save lives at sea.” Search and rescue in the central Mediterranean is undertaken by Operation Sophia, the Italian Coast Guard and Navy, Operation Triton,55 and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In 2016, these operations were “all responsible for broadly the same share of initial rescues”.56

31.Mr Hobart said that Operation Sophia vessels had rescued a total of 33,830 people since the inception of the mission.57 The number of recorded casualties on the central Mediterranean route nonetheless increased by around 42% in 2016: more than 4,500 people drowned, compared to 3,175 in 2015.58 There have been 2,150 recorded deaths on the central Mediterranean route to date in 2017.59 Frontex noted that the numbers were “a rough estimate due to the absence of passenger lists and a small number of bodies actually recovered”.60

32.Mr Hobart acknowledged that “the assets deployed in Operation Sophia are not best suited to search and rescue operations. That is not their primary task.”61 He pointed to the other actors in search and rescue on this route, which had included British Border Force-controlled cutters (now redeployed in the eastern Mediterranean).62 He said that, for humanitarian search and rescue, “there are better ships to do that—not only cheaper but more suitable”.63

Training the Libyan coastguard

33.Mr Jones acknowledged that Operation Sophia needed to move into Phase 2B and Phase 3, “in order to play a fuller role in breaking the smugglers’ model”. That was not currently possible, “which is why we are focusing very much at the moment on making a success of the training of the coastguard”.64 Mr Hobart said: “in effect, we are doing some of Phase 2B by training the coastguard to act in their own territorial waters. That is also more acceptable from a Libyan perspective.” It was also one of the activities the EU could provide in the short term.65

34.Mr Jones added that this training was part of “the medium and longer-term sustainable objective of enabling the Libyans themselves to manage their own maritime borders”.66 The aim was “to build a coastguard, which will carry out activities with respect to human rights, and will prevent smugglers and rescue migrants at sea”.67

35.The first training package had taken place in international waters, aboard Operation Sophia vessels. It had “focused on enhancing Libyan naval coastguard capability in undertaking search and rescue activities alongside disrupting smuggling and trafficking in Libya”. It had “covered basic seamanship skills as well as search and rescue procedures, and included an emphasis on the treatment of migrants and human rights”. In total, 93 members of the Libyan naval coastguard had received the training.68

36.The second training package had begun in January 2017, and consisted of “roughly two-week modules in different Member States”, including “more specialist skills for senior leaders of the coastguard”.69 Mr Hobart said the third training package would take place later in 2017, and involve “sea training on the vessels that the naval coastguard will operate”. There were four Libyan coastguard patrol vessels currently in Italy as part of the training, which would then return to operation in the west of Libya.70

37.Mr Jones described the training as “challenging, but moving forwards”. While it was “probably too early to judge the overall success”, he told us that “a report issued by the operational headquarters found that there had been satisfactory results”.71 Mr Hobart concurred: the EU had “had good engagement from the GNA in providing an initial group of … trainees who were well engaged with the programme”.72 The Government “would not expect actual outcomes from the training until package 3” was completed.73

38.Mr Walker-Cousins, on the other hand, was sceptical about the value of coastguard training in addressing the migration crisis: “When you have a hammer, all problems look like nails”—it was because Operation Sophia was a naval mission that “they want to look at coastal, naval things and training”. He said that the Libyan coastguard was “operating in the most impossible of circumstances”—fuel smugglers had taken over the coast around Zuwara, and “hard-core terrorists and very heavily armed human traffickers” were also likely to be active. It was not appropriate to expect the coastguard to combat migration, which was essentially a political problem.74

39.It is important to be alive to some of the risks involved in working with the coastguard. First, creating a culture in the Libyan coastguard that respects the human rights of migrants is likely to be a major challenge. On 14 February 2017, The Times reported that it had seen footage of Libyan coastguard officers whipping, beating, and threatening to kill the migrants they had rescued.75 This was consistent with a report by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Detained and dehumanised—report on human rights abuses against migrants in Libya, published on 13 December 2016, which found that both migrants and NGO staff had “recounted dangerous, life-threatening interceptions by armed men believed to be from the Libyan Coast Guard”.76

40.Second, training for the coastguard allows Operation Sophia to improve the prospects for boats to be intercepted in Libyan waters, and returned to Libyan soil. This is consistent with the aim of Phase 2B of Operation Sophia. We note, however, that the OHCHR “considers migrants to be at high risk of suffering serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, in Libya and thus urges States not to return, or facilitate the return of, persons to Libya”.77 The EU abides by the principle of non-refoulement, under Article 33(1) of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees,78 and so all migrants rescued by the EU in international waters are taken to Italy. The Libyan coastguard, however, is able to return migrants to Libyan soil.79

41.Amnesty International UK said it was “dismayed” by the approach of “seeking to simply stop migration out of Libya via the sea route”, because this had the “prospect of returning or trapping people in a profoundly unsafe situation in the country”. In the absence of “any fundamental improvement in the human rights and humanitarian situation or capacity in Libya”, the EU’s focus on the Libyan coastguard risked “prolonging and exacerbating risk to life and liberty and of other human rights violations; including by extending and recycling people’s exposure to smugglers and traffickers”.80

The implementation of the UN arms embargo

42.Operation Sophia’s second supplementary task is monitoring the UN arms embargo on Libya. Mr Jones said Operation Sophia had “hailed 372 vessels in order to establish their business and … conducted 41 friendly approaches to gain further information” since May 2016. He added that there had been “one boarding, but so far there have been no seizures of arms under that task”.81

43.Mr Nicholas Williams, Head of North Africa Joint Unit, Middle East and North Africa Directorate, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development, said it was “difficult to know” whether this equated to a successful outcome, but “the hope is that it has had a deterrent effect on people who are thinking about trying to get arms into Libya in contravention of the arms embargo, or indeed people trying to move arms from one bit of Libya to another by sea, which has been an issue in the past”. He was “not sure we feel we have a hugely full picture” of whether most arms were moved by sea, but suspected “the answer is probably no”. It was probable that “a lot of the stuff comes by land, not least through the south because those are very porous borders, which are not particularly well managed”.82

44.We note that by 19 June 2017 the number of friendly approaches had risen to 50, and there had been seven flag inquiries and three inspections.83 On 1 May 2017 several weapons were seized and disposed of by Operation Sophia during the inspection of the motor vessel El Mukthar, flying a Libyan flag and navigating in international waters.84

Conclusions and recommendations

45.We remain of the view that Operation Sophia has not in any meaningful way deterred the flow of migrants, disrupted the smugglers’ networks, or impeded the business of people smuggling on the central Mediterranean route. An unintended consequence of Operation Sophia’s destruction of vessels has been that the smugglers have adapted, sending migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels, leading to an increase in deaths.

46.A naval mission is the wrong tool with which to tackle migration in the central Mediterranean. There is little justification for the deployment of high-end naval and air assets for the tasks being undertaken by Operation Sophia in Phase 2A. We are not convinced that essential intelligence on land-based smuggling networks can be gathered from the high seas. As the Government told us, there are cheaper and more suitable ships to continue the essential task of search and rescue, which could be deployed in place of the mission in continuing to save lives.

47.We are concerned by reports of serious abuses of the human rights of migrants by the Libyan coastguard. We ask the Government to provide us with its assessment of the extent to which the human rights elements of Operation Sophia’s training packages are likely to improve the treatment of migrants by the Libyan coastguard.


25 European Union Committee, Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean: an impossible challenge (14th Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 144)

26 Phase 1 (monitoring and intelligence gathering) ran from 22 June 2015 until 7 October 2015, and is not considered in this report. We note that in some reports, the EU’s terminology for the phases of the mission has changed since we published our report (referring to Phase 2A as Phase 2, and Phase 2B as Phase 3). EEAS, Factsheet on EUNAVFOR MED mission (5 April 2017): https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/eeas/files/eunavfor_med_-_mission_05_april_2017_en.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017] We have retained the same nomenclature for the phases as used in our previous report, for ease of reference.

30 EEAS, ‘Operation SOPHIA crews act again to implement UN arms embargo’: https://eeas.europa.eu/csdp-missions-operations/eunavfor-med/28540/operation-sophia-crews-act-again-implement-un-arms-embargo_en [accessed 27 June]

32 EEAS, ‘Operation SOPHIA crews act again to implement UN arms embargo’: https://eeas.europa.eu/csdp-missions-operations/eunavfor-med/28540/operation-sophia-crews-act-again-implement-un-arms-embargo_en [accessed 27 June]

33 European Union Committee, Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean: an impossible challenge (14th Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 144)

35 Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council on Migration on the Central Mediterranean route Managing flows, saving lives, JOIN (2017) 4 final

36 European Union Committee, Operation Sophia, the EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean: an impossible challenge (14th Report, Session 2015–16, HL Paper 144)

38 Q 17 He did note, however, the “counterfactual argument” that it was impossible to know whether the numbers would increase or decrease if smugglers were still able to use larger boats and send them into the central Mediterranean.

43 Oral evidence taken on 9 July 2015 (Session 2015–16), Q 3 (Professor George Joffe)

44 Oral evidence taken on 17 March 2016 (Session 2016–17), Q 50 (Patrick Kingsley)

45 Written evidence from Amnesty International UK (OSF0001)

46 Frontex, Risk Analysis for 2017 (February 2017) p 20: http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annual_Risk_Analysis_2017.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

47 Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council on Migration on the Central Mediterranean route Managing flows, saving lives, JOIN (2017) 4 final

48 Frontex, Risk Analysis for 2017 (February 2017) p 18: http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annual_Risk_Analysis_2017.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

49 Frontex, Risk Analysis for 2016 (March 2016) p 16: http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annula_Risk_Analysis_2016.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

50 This deal includes that from its entry into force, all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into the Greek islands, who are not applying for asylum or whose application has been found unfounded or inadmissible, are returned to Turkey. For every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey, another Syrian refugee will be resettled in the EU, taking into account the UN Vulnerability Criteria. Priority is given to migrants who have not previously entered or tried to enter the EU irregularly. European Council, ‘EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016’: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18-eu-turkey-statement/ [accessed 27 June 2017] Figures from Frontex, Risk Analysis for 2017 (February 2017) p 18: http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annual_Risk_Analysis_2017.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

51 Written evidence from Amnesty International UK (OSF0001)

52 Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council on Migration on the Central Mediterranean route Managing flows, saving lives, JOIN (2017) 4 final

53 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Mediterranean Situation’: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean [accessed 4 July 2017] Numbers as of 3 July. For monthly figures of migrants arriving in Italy until 30 June 2017 please refer to the numbers provided by the 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]

54 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]

55 This Frontex operation supports Italy with border control, surveillance, and search and rescue in the territorial waters of Italy and parts of the search and rescue zones of Italy and Malta. European Commission, EU operations in the Mediterranean sea (4 October 2016): https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/policies/securing-eu-borders/fact-sheets/docs/20161006/eu_operations_in_the_mediterranean_sea_en.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

56 Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council on Migration on the Central Mediterranean route Managing flows, saving lives, JOIN (2017) 4 final

58 Frontex, Risk Analysis for 2017 (February 2017) p 20: http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annual_Risk_Analysis_2017.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]. The IOM gives this figure as 2,876: IOM, ‘Recorded deaths in the Mediterranean Sea by route, 2015’: https://missingmigrants.iom.int/mediterranean [accessed 4 July 2017].

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

60 Frontex, Risk Analysis for 2017 (February 2017) p 20: http://frontex.europa.eu/assets/Publications/Risk_Analysis/Annual_Risk_Analysis_2017.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

62 The two cutters of the British Border Force fleet were deployed to Frontex’s Operation Triton.

64 Q 16 The Government told us that “the President of the Presidency Council of the GNA … clearly articulated his wish for Operation Sophia to train the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy”. We note, however, that the UN Panel of Experts on Libya stated that: “Neither the coastguard nor the navy has been notified to the [UN Security Council Committee on Libya] as part of the security forces under the control of the Government of National Accord, and the issue of control is further highlighted by multiple reports of criminal activities involving the coastguard.” Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Explanatory Memorandum on a European Union Document—Council Decision (CFSP) 2016/993 of 20 June 2016 amending Decision (CFSP) 2015/778 on a European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED operation SOPHIA) (28 June 2016): http://europeanmemoranda.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/files/2016/06/Unnumbered_EM_Decision_2016–993_Amending_Decision_2015–778_Military_Operation_Southern_Mediterranean_Sophia_(30800)1.pdf [accessed 4 July 2017] UN, Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) (1 June 2017): http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2017/466 [accessed 4 July 2017]

67 Q 16 (Edward Hobart)

68 Q 18 (Simon Jones)

69 Q 18 (Simon Jones)

73 Q 18 (Edward Hobart)

75 Tom Kington, ‘Video Shows Libyan coastguard whipping rescued migrants’ The Times (14 February 2017): https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/world/video-shows-libyan-coastguard-whipping-rescued-migrants-6d8g2jgz6 [accessed 27 June 2017]

76 United Nations Support Mission in Libya and United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Detained and Dehumanised” Report on human rights abuses against migrants in Libya (13 December 2016): http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/LY/DetainedAndDehumanised_en.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

77 United Nations Support Mission in Libya and United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “Detained and Dehumanised” Report on human rights abuses against migrants in Libya (13 December 2016) p 8: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/LY/DetainedAndDehumanised_en.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

78 This states that “No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The UN Refugee Agency, ‘Note on Non-Refoulement (Submitted by the High Commissioner) EC/SCP2’ (23 August 1977): http://www.unhcr.org/uk/excom/scip/3ae68ccd10/note-non-refoulement-submitted-high-commissioner.html [accessed 27 June 2017]

79 The UNHCR “does not consider that Libya meets the criteria for being designated as a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation following rescue at sea”. United Nations Support Mission in Libya and United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “Detained and Dehumanised” Report on human rights abuses against migrants in Libya (13 December 2016) p 8: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/LY/DetainedAndDehumanised_en.pdf [accessed 27 June 2017]

80 Written evidence from Amnesty International UK (OSF0001)

83 EEAS, ‘Operation SOPHIA crews act again to implement UN arms embargo’: https://eeas.europa.eu/csdp-missions-operations/eunavfor-med/28540/operation-sophia-crews-act-again-implement-un-arms-embargo_en [accessed 27 June 2017]

84 EEAS, ‘EUNAVFOR MED operation SOPHIA seizes weapons on board a vessel in international waters’: https://eeas.europa.eu/csdp-missions-operations/eunavfor-med/25373/eunavformed-operation-sophia-seizes-weapons-board-vessel-international-waters_en [accessed 27 June 2017]




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