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EU Turns Its Back on Migrants in Distress

New Naval Mission Designed to Avoid Sea Rescues

Migrants are transfered by Italian sailors from the German combat supply ship 'Frankfurt am Main' to the their ship 'Grecale' after being rescued during EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya, March 29, 2016. © 2016 AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

It is a craven, indefensible choice. Yesterday, European Union foreign ministers agreed to launch a mission in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce the United Nations-mandated Libyan arms embargo on the condition that it not focus on saving lives.

Bowing to pressure from Austria and Hungary, two landlocked countries whose leaders define themselves by their hostile migration policies, the ministers agreed to a plan to deploy warships with the explicit goal of avoiding areas of the Mediterranean where they might have to respond to boats carrying migrants in distress. EU naval assets will reportedly patrol no closer than 100 kilometers (60 miles) or off the eastern coast of Libya, about as far away as you can get from where women, men, and children trying to flee Libya depart on overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.

The decision formally ends the already moribund Operation Sophia, the anti-smuggling mission set up in 2015 but left without any ships in the water since March 2019. It had failed principally because the previous Italian government had refused to allow people to disembark.

Operation Sophia rescued more than 50,000 people at sea.

Ironically, the operation was undone by its success. The Austrian and Hungarian governments – with other countries, no doubt, quietly hiding behind them – insisted the new mission be set up to minimize chances of rescuing people and having to bring them to Europe. Yesterday’s agreement even includes a condition that ships be withdrawn if ministers detect any “impact on migration flows.”

Saying that ships would withdraw from areas where there are people in distress takes the EU miles away from the letter and the spirit of international law.

It is unreal to focus on so-called “pull factors” – what can draw people to take a dangerous migration journey – while open warfare, the breakdown in the ability of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations to provide assistance, nightmarish conditions in detention, and risks of falling prey to armed groups in Libya seem to provide ample “push factors.” And never mind that studies have shown that the presence of potential rescue vessels is not the main factor in determining departures.

The EU can stop arms being sent to fuel abuses in Libya and respond to the humanitarian crisis in Libya and the Mediterranean – it is not an either-or choice. EU naval assets should be where they are most needed and useful, and that includes where they can help save lives.

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