The rescues were part of the EU's Operation Sophia, which diplomats have decided to extend by six months beyond its March 31st expiry date but without new ship deployments, the bloc announced. Instead, the operation will rely on air missions and close coordination with Libya, despite the political chaos that has scarred the country since 2011.
“Member states have decided to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia for six months with a temporary suspension of its naval assets while member states continue working on a solution related to disembarkation,” said EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic.
However, Sophia “is a maritime operation and it is clear that without naval resources, it will not be able to carry out its mandate effectively,” she added.
Photo: Italian Navy/AFP
Since its launch in 2015, after a series of tragic shipwrecks, the mission has claimed the arrest of some 150 traffickers, and rescued 45,000 people.
But the election of a populist government in Rome last year changed the fate of the mission, with authorities taking a much harsher stance towards rescued migrants heading for Italian shores. Italy's anger effectively put an end to rescue operations through Sophia a year ago, even as the EU credited the mission with having stopped smugglers taking migrants on dangerous sea crossings.
Sources told AFP the decision split the EU's 28 member states, with several countries wondering whether Sophia — now a naval mission without a navy — should be halted.
Efforts to reform Operation Sophia in the long term have beached on the broader question of how to reform the EU's so-called Dublin asylum rules, which stipulate that the country of first arrival must process asylum seekers.
Under the stewardship of nationalist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Rome has insisted it should not have to carry the burden of dealing with migrants rescued at sea. The stance has seen Salvini gain in popularity ahead of EU elections set for May.
“Rationality went out of the window a long time ago,” an EU diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. “This is damage control in the hope that once election season is over we might actually come to our senses,” the source added.
- Italy's democracy ranking plummets due to populist policies
- Italians rally to limit fallout from migrant centre closure
- Italian senate votes to save Salvini from prosecution over rescued migrants
Over the years, Europe has added new functions to the mission, which also trains the Libyan coastguard and controls the enforcement of a UN arms embargo on Libya, and illegal oil trafficking.
EU cooperation with Libya has been credited with sharply reducing the number of migrants arriving from North Africa and the Middle East from a 2015 peak when Europe faced its worst migration crisis since World War II. Activists, however, decry rampant human rights abuses against migrants in Libya as they await passage to Europe, and urge the EU to not outsource the problem to Tripoli.
For the moment, two ships patrol the central Mediterranean as part of Operation Sophia: Spain's Rayo and Italy's Luigi Rizzo, which are supported by air assets from Spain, Italy, Poland and Luxembourg.
Photo: Alessandro Fucarini/AFP