Eleonora Vasques

The EU’s military operations in the Mediterranean should focus more heavily on combating human trafficking, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote in a letter to member states ahead of the EU leaders summit on Thursday and Friday (26-27 October).


Since March 2020, the EU’s military mission IRINI has been operating in international waters of the Mediterranean Sea with the chief aim of enforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya – with the halting of illicit exports of Libyan oil, training of the Libyan coastguard and interruption of human trafficking as secondary missions.

Now, however, IRINI’s main aim should be preventing human trafficking and smuggling, von der Leyen argued in her letter.

“To strengthen external border control, Member States, on a proposal of the High Representative [Josep Borrell], could consider enhancing the task of Operation IRINI by giving more priority to combating human smuggling,” the Commission chief wrote.

Operation IRINI is financed by the European Peace Facility (EPF), an EU off-budget instrument controlled by member states that aims to bolster the EU’s ability to “prevent conflicts, build peace, and strengthen international security”.

Patrolling the Mediterranean

The change would make IRINI’s purpose similar to that of the EU naval mission it replaced – Operation Sophia – the main focus of which was to fight migrant smugglers and save lives at sea.

Sophia was wound down in March 2020, however, in part due to the high political pressure that ensued from its role in conducting search and rescue (SAR) operations, which some politicians argued created a ‘pull factor’ for migrants.

It is not an information of public domain whether Irini, which focused on the waters east of Libya, performed SAR operations. Since its creation, member states have repeatedly warned to suspend it, on the grounds that its maritime vessels can be, again, a ‘pull factor’.

However, according to international law, any vessel near to a boat in distress has the duty to perform or assist a rescue.

Sophia’s core scope was “to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers,” to disrupt the business model of human traffickers networks in the whole Southern central Mediterranean, and to prevent loss of lives at sea.

Irini operation has as main scope to implement the UN arms embargo resolution Libya, to combat weapons being trafficked to Eastern Libya, the territory controlled by the Libya National Army (LNA), led by the Libyan-American warlord Khalifa Haftar.

The mission’s other tasks include combating smuggling, including petroleum and humans. Despite the mission also envisaging training the Libyan coast guard of the Tripoli government, this has not yet started.

Other missions in the Mediterranean include the Italian military operation “Mediterraneo sicuro” (safe Mediterranean) and joint operations between EU border agency Frontex and member states, such as operation Themis with Italy and Poseidon with Greece.

Third-country cooperation under scrutiny

The EU continues to seek closer relations with third countries (both of transit and countries of origins where people depart) to ‘curb’ migration, and the issue is a key priority in von der Leyen’s letter ahead of the summit.

“The external aspects of migration are essential for successful implementation of our policy. These consist of establishing wide’ranging partnerships with key countries, addressing the root causes of migration, preventing irregular departures, fighting the smuggling of migrants and increasing returns, as well as encouraging frameworks for legal migration,” von der Leyen wrote.

Western Libya is already well patrolled by the Libyan coastguard based in Tripoli that the EU financed with equipment, such as vessels, to intercept migrants at sea with several EU projects.

Support for Libya’s border management has been heavily criticised by civil society organisations, the UN, and journalists, who have pointed to evidence of widespread human rights abuses by the Libyan authorities during and after intercepting migrants at sea.

“We are providing support to many key partners with equipment and training to help prevent unauthorised border crossing. All five vessels promised to Libya have been delivered and we see the impact of increased patrols,” von der Leyen said.
Euractiv interviewed ten migrants on board of the NGO boat Ocean Viking in July, which departed from Western Libya, who described their experiences of torture and deprivation of water and food in detention centres.

Nine migrants out of ten told Euractiv that they tried to cross the sea more than one time, and in most cases they had to pay ransoms to be freed from prison.

A UN fact finding mission published at the end of March, reported that the Libyan coast guard has been infiltrated by violent militias and that there is collusion between the coast guard and some smugglers and human traffickers.

Euractiv witnessed violent actions by the Libyan coast guard during a rescue on 7 July, when they fired close to speedboats with the migrants and the crew onboard.

The EU wants to adopt a similar arrangement with Tunisia. The so-called EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding signed in July, aims to invest in Tunisia’s border management. Arrivals from Tunisia have surged over the past 12 months.

“Under the Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia, we have delivered spare parts for Tunisian coast guards that are keeping 6 boats operational, and others will be repaired by the end of the year. More is expected to be delivered to countries in North Africa in the coming months,” the EU Commission president explained.

The ‘Eastern problem’

Departures from Eastern Libya have also increased this year.

According to international law, any vessel close to a boat in distress, has the obligation to perform or assist a rescue, which is considered concluded only when survivors are disembarked in a place of safety – which does not include Libya. Any return in an unsafe place where people can face a different range of abuses, has to be considered an illegal return (the so-called principle of non-refoulement).

In the meantime, militias in Eastern Libya have started to perform interceptions at sea.

The Tariq Ben Zeyad militia, led by Haftar’s son Saddam Haftar, has started to perform migrant interceptions, in waters close to the EU borders.


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