Coinciding with the World Refugee Day, the European Union extended on the 20th June the mandate of EUNAVFOR Med (Operation Sophia) until 27 July 2017. The area of operations of this EU military missions is within the Central Mediterranean, predominantly off the Libyan and Italian coasts. Currently the mission has four surface vessels and six air assets at it’s disposal, provided by several EU member states.
In the press release recently published, the EU Council also notes that the mandate of the mission has been amended. Two further tasks have been added to Operation Sophia’s mandate, which now includes the training of the Libyan coastguards and navy as well as countering illegal arms trafficking. The initial mandate, as approved by the EU Council on 18 May 2015, emphasised that EUNAVFOR Med ought to “conduct boarding, search, seizure and diversion on the high seas [or territorial waters] of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking under the condition provided for by applicable international law”. As such, the EU operation is obliged to provide assistance at high seas and according to the press release already cited, as many as 16,000 people have been saved.
However some are claiming that the EU naval mission is now acting as another pull factor for refugees and migrants. Ayoub Ghassem, spokesperson of the Libyan Navy, recently stated in the media that:
“Since the start of Operation Sophia, we have had much greater numbers of migrants trying to go to Europe because they know that the boats are operating in the sea, so they don’t have to make it all the way to Italy […] All migrants’ boats have satellite phones and GPS. Before, they had to wait until they reached Italian waters to make a distress call, but now they start making SOS calls as soon as they leave Libyan territorial waters.”
Whereas detention centres in Libya are already reaching maximum capacity, Amnesty International has recently urged the EU not to intensify cooperation with Libyan authorities. The international NGO, after interviewing 90 survivors, notes that many described “shootings and beatings while being picked up by the [Libyan] coastguard or harrowing torture and other ill-treatment at detention centres”.