Refugee and Migration Crisis: Operation Sophia modernised its mandate

Member states modified on Tuesday European Union’s counter-smuggling Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean Sea. Operation Sophia’s mandate was due to finalise by the end of March but under the new agreement of the 28 states, the operation was renewed for additional six months.

New Rules of Engagement

The new agreement abolishes the measure of maritime patrols. Maritime patrols have been criticised by several countries as providing a pretext for salvaging people in distress at sea. While the rescue and disembarkation of people collected at sea is not part of the mandate under Operation Sophia, it is an obligatory rule of international humanitarian and maritime laws.

Given that the collection and disembarkation of people from the Mediterranean Sea represented a point of contention for several E.U. member-states, a consensual solution was found instead. Patrol boats would be replaced by air surveillance operations overseeing the waterways of the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to air patrols, European countries agreed with Libya to intensify the latter’s coast-guard presence in the Mediterranean Sea and become the sole responsible authority for rescuing people found in distress.

Italian Objections

The new mandate of Operation Sophia has mainly resulted from Italian objections to current policies. Italy argued that people may still be rescued at sea but Rome will no longer accept their disembarkation at national ports. It has also taken steps to prevent non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from sailing in Italian waters and rescuing people in distress at sea.

The Italian government justified its decision on the grounds that the presence of patrol boats does not deter migratory waves from reaching European shores and incentivises them to seek rescue by European coast-guard authorities. Finally, Italian objections centre on the issue of fair distribution of arriving migrants and refugees among the 28 member-states. However, with the exception of Italy, Greece and Cyprus no country so far has taken their share of refugees and migrants arriving in European shores.

Evaluation of Operation Sophia

Operation Sophia has been institutionalised in May 2015 as a response to an influx of migratory and refugee waves arriving from Libya to European shores. The Operation’s mandate aims precisely to hinder the smuggling of people through Mediterranean waterways. Since its inception, the framework has rescued more than 45.000 people found in distress at sea.

However, upon Italy’s objections, Operation Sophia virtually ceased combined patrol and rescue activities in the Mediterranean Sea since 2018. In 2018, nearly 141.000 people reached the European shores from maritime routes. Of them, roughly 2.300 lost their lives while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

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