Blog AnalysisMediterranean seaMissions Operations

[Analysis] A new maritime operation off the coast of Libya to counter the flow of migrants. Is this realistic?

(B2) This is the will of the Italian government displayed by its Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and its Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Tajani. See a Sophia-type maritime operation regaining momentum off the African coast, Libya and Tunisia in particular.

Internal briefing at Eunavfor Med in August 2015 (photo: EUNAVFOR / Archives B2)

The European Commission has just proposed a series of practical proposals (read: [News] Italy calls on Europe for help. The Commission's ten-point plan. A new maritime operation under study). A subject that Ursula von der Leyen knows well, having been Minister of Defense at the time of the migration crisis of 2015-2016 (1).

On paper, the maritime operation to counter migrant smuggling networks seems like a great idea. In fact, this operation has already been attempted in the past. We must therefore remember the reasons for the failure of Operation Sophia, at least from the angle of the fight against illegal migration, before resuming another operation which could experience the same difficulties. And they are multiple.

The first of these is that Operation Sophia never received authorization to go into Libyan or Tunisian territorial waters, and even less into the ports of these countries to block boat departures. It is not certain that it will obtain this authorization today from Tripoli or from Tunis. The other solution, to obtain a resolution from the United Nations Security Council under Chapter VII (with the use of force), seems out of reach (it would face a Russian or Chinese veto or both at the same time) .

Its alternative, a mission led by Frontex with European coast guard resources, does not have the same scale as military vessels, for legal and practical reasons, particularly on the high seas. The size of coast guard vessels does not is not the same as that of military ships, as for force intervention with traffickers' ships.

Secondly, it is based on an international obligation arising from the law of the sea, to collect shipwrecked people at sea and bring them to the nearest safe port. In this case, Libyan ports are not automatically recognized as safe, at least for refugees (read: Libya is not a safe country. Fed. Mogherini plays frankness). This would then require them to be repatriated to a European port and their asylum requests to be treated as such (either by the country of the port of arrival, or by the country of the ship's flag). A maritime operation would not resolve the arrival of refugees or migrants. On the other hand, it makes it possible to regulate it... and save lives at sea.

Third, theexit strategy of the operation was based on the training of the Libyan coast guard, in numbers, respecting international human rights standards. This strategy aborted due to the interruption and then persistent refusal by Tripoli to continue this training. Libya then preferred the Turkish offer deemed less conditional on compliance with certain rules (read: The training of the Libyan coast guard: in the hands of the Turks? Bad signal for Europeans).

Fourth, it requires resources. However, one by one, the Member States abandoned Operation Sophia at the time, for essentially political reasons. Overwhelmed, Italy (of Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini) refuses the disembarkation of people collected at sea in its ports from the operation's ships. France and Germany, in particular (read: Germany withdraws from Operation Sophia), followed by others (Ireland, etc.) decided to no longer provide resources for the operation.

This will end up running empty... without ships. Austria and Hungary (in particular) gave it the final blow, refusing to allow the operation to serve the values ​​that founded it (saving lives at sea). Only theSpain says it is ready to put a ship in Operation Sophia. A real splash as we called him then (read: Stitches for Operation Sophia which leaves for six months… without boats).

A successful new maritime operation would require these problems to be resolved today. Which is far from being the case...

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read for memory: 'Ite missa est' for Operation Sophia?

A significant assessment of Sophia

For the record, at the beginning of 2017, more than 18 months after its launch in the spring of 2015, the operation displays a record that is not negligible: 32.000 migrants rescued, 372 traffickers' vessels destroyed, 100 suspects handed over to the Italian police and justice system for be judged. But traffickers are adapting to the new situation (read: Mediterranean. Migrant flows reverse, smugglers adapt). And the problems remain (read: The Sophia operation is rowing. Why ?).

  1. In 2018 - 2019, Ursula von der Leyen strongly criticized the attitude of Rome, led by Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini. The leader of the Lega was then Minister of the Interior. Read : Von der Leyen (German Defense Minister) attacks Italy for sabotaging Operation Sophia (V2)

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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