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EU naval mission saves lives in Med but has not stopped people smuggling, says Lords EU committee

The EU's naval mission, Operation Sophia, has failed in its mission to disrupt the business of people smuggling in the central Mediterranean. Its mandate should not be renewed, but the search and rescue work, which has saved the lives of many people, should continue.

These are the main conclusions of the House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee's report, 'Operation Sophia: a failed mission', published today. It follows up a report published last year, which concluded that the mission faced “an impossible challenge”.

Operation Sophia appears to have little effect in deterring migration. Detections of irregular migrants on the central Mediterranean route were at the highest yet in 2016, when 181,436 people arrived in Europe by this route, an increase of 18% on 2015 (when the figure was 153,842).

Commenting on the report, Baroness Verma, Chair of the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, said:

“People smuggling begins onshore, so a naval mission is the wrong tool for tackling this dangerous, inhumane and unscrupulous business. Once the boats have set sail, it is too late.

“Operation Sophia has failed to meet the objective of its mandate — to disrupt the business model of people smuggling. It should not be renewed. However it has been a humanitarian success, and it is critical that the EU's lifesaving search and rescue work continues, but using more suitable, non-military, vessels.

“Future UK and EU action should focus on tackling people smuggling in source and transit countries, and supporting sustainable economic development and good governance in these countries.

“Italy has found itself on the front line of a mass movement of people into Europe, and deserves credit for its efforts to respond.”

Report findings include:

  • Operation Sophia vessels have rescued over 33,000 people since the inception of the mission.
  • An unintended consequence of Operation Sophia's destruction of smugglers' boats has been that they have adapted, sending migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels, resulting in more deaths at sea.
  • The number of recorded casualties on the central Mediterranean route increased by around 42% in 2016: more than 4,500 people drowned, compared to 3,175 in 2015. There have been 2,150 recorded deaths to date in 2017.
  • A unified government in Libya, able to provide security across the country, is a precondition for meaningful EU action against people smuggling networks onshore. Recent discussions towards this goal are encouraging, but migration is unlikely to be at the top of the agenda in Libya, and political and security conditions in Libya are unlikely to improve sufficiently to allow onshore operations by the EU any time soon.

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