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EU efforts are failing to disrupt people smugglers in the Central Med, say Lords

The EU naval mission to tackle people smuggling in the central Mediterranean is not working, says a Lords report out today.

Operation Sophia, which is the EU naval mission in the central Mediterranean, has a mandate to disrupt and deter people smugglers, but the House of Lords EU Committee says it's not having any meaningful impact.

However, it applauds the success of the mission in saving thousands of lives at sea, and urges the EU continue its search and rescue obligations.

The Lord EU External Affairs Sub-Committee has been investigating the effectiveness of the EU's Operation Sophia, named after a baby born aboard one of the mission ships off the coast of Libya.

The report, ‘Operation Sophia: an impossible challenge', highlights the lack of a stable Libyan Government as a crucial factor in hampering Operation Sophia's success, and says a collective EU policy to combat the root causes of irregular migration is a vital piece of the jigsaw in the longer term.

Commenting on the report Committee Chairman, Lord Tugendhat, said:

“Migrant smuggling is a multi-billion pound operation, with hundreds of thousands of migrants travelling each year on separate routes into Europe.  The EU naval mission in the central Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, patrols an area that's around six times larger than Italy and this was always going to present an enormous challenge.”

“Its aim is to disrupt the business model of the smugglers, through intelligence gathering and intercepting and destroying vessels used by smugglers.”

“Our report stresses that the operation is succeeding in carrying out its separate search and rescue obligations, which is to be commended. This is a humanitarian obligation that should be maintained.”

“However, a naval mission cannot disrupt the business model of people smuggling, and in this sense it is failing. The smuggling networks operate from Libya, and they extend through Africa. Without support from a stable Libyan Government, the operation is unable to gather the intelligence it needs or tackle the smugglers onshore.”

“While there are plans for further phases of the mission which would see Operation Sophia acting in Libyan territorial waters and onshore, we are not confident that the new Libyan Government of National Accord will be in a position to work closely with the EU and its Member States any time soon.”

“And when it comes to disrupting the smugglers' business model, the report finds that the destruction of vessels has so far been insignificant to the scale of the smuggling industry, and we have heard that the smugglers are simply changing their tactics in response. By the time the boats are in the open sea, the smugglers are no longer on board, and so only low level targets have been arrested.”

“The report concludes that the EU should urgently put in place a strategy which can tackle the root causes of mass irregular migration, including helping source countries overcome security and development challenges.”

“We recognise that migration is a sensitive topic amongst national electorates and understand these concerns, but we believe that the lack of the public debate and political leadership has further politicised the issue amongst European citizens. We urge Member States to initiate a debate with their citizens on the new realities of global migration, and how best to deal with the challenges ahead.”

Other findings from the report include:

Search and rescue:

The inquiry heard that some 9,000 people have been rescued by Operation Sophia since it was launched last year, and the report commends this success. However, the report concludes that while it is carrying out valuable work in this area, search and rescue is not its core mandate.


Over 50 smugglers have been arrested via Operation Sophia, but the report finds that these arrests have been of low-level targets, and not the key figures within the smuggling networks.

80 smuggling vessels have been destroyed to date, but again, the report finds that this has resulted in the smugglers simply changing tactics and shifting from wooden boats to dinghies, which are less safe.

The report finds that significant gaps remain in Operation Sophia's understanding of the smugglers networks, in particular how they operate on Libyan territory. The report concludes that a mission acting only on the high seas is not able to disrupt effectively the smuggling networks, as it set out to do.

Libyan Government:

The weakness of the Libyan state has been a major cause of the rise in smugglers using this route through the Mediterranean, the report finds. It says it is vital for an internationally recognised and accepted Libyan government to be in place in order for Operation Sophia to succeed in disrupting the business model of the smugglers. However, it is not certain that the new Libyan Government will be in a position to support Operation Sophia in the short term.

Bigger picture:

The report concludes that there is an urgent need to address the root causes of irregular migration to Europe. It calls on the EU to create a wider strategy, which would build resilience in the countries of origin, target the profits of the smugglers, provide support in-country, and inform and engage the public.

The report will be published on 00:01 Friday 13 May. Copies of the report are available to the media under embargo from the Lords Press Office. To request a copy, or bid for an interview with Lord Tugendhat, please email or call 020 7219 8550.

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