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EUNAVFOR MED operation SOPHIA

EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia is one element of a broader EU comprehensive response to the migration issue, which seeks to address not only its physical component, but also its root causes as well including conflict, poverty, climate change and persecution. The mission core mandate is to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers, in order to contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean and prevent the further loss of life at sea.

Todays decision takes the EU naval operation from its intelligence-gathering phase to its operational and active phase against human smugglers on the high seas. With these words, on 28 September 2015, only 4 months following the establishment of the Operational Headquarters, Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, announced Operation EUNAVFOR MEDs transition to its Phase 2.

Following a rapid Council decision (which appointed Rear Admiral (UH) Enrico Credendino of the Italian Navy as Operation Commander), lights were turned on in the EU Operation Headquarters in Rome for the first time on 18 May 2015. From this date, Operation EUNAVFOR MED began its record breaking establishment, swiftly moving from the Council Decision to launch the Operation on the 22nd of June, to the Task Force achieving Full Operational Capability (FOC) on 27 July 2015.

The EUNAVFOR MED operation is but one element of a broader EU comprehensive response to the migration issue, which seeks to address not only its physical component, but also its root causes as well including conflict, poverty, climate change and persecution.

The EUNAVFOR MED operation is designed around 4 phases. The first consists of the deployment of forces to build a comprehensive understanding of smuggling activity and methods, and this phase is now complete. Phase two foresees the boarding, search, seizure and diversion of smugglers vessels on the high seas under the conditions provided for by applicable international law. This activity will be extended into Territorial Waters upon the release of any applicable United Nation Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) and/or the concerned coastal State consent. The third phase expands this activity further; up to and including taking operational measures against vessels and related assets suspected of being used for EUNAVFOR MED OP SOPHIA.

A contribution towards disrupting the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Central Mediterranean human smuggling or trafficking inside the coastal states territory. Once again, this is subject to the necessary legal framework established by UNSCR and/or following coastal state consent. Finally, the fourth and last phase will consist of withdrawal of forces and completion of the operation. All of the activities undertaken in each phase adhere to and respect international law, including humanitarian and refugee law and human rights, while the European Council is responsible for assessing whether the conditions for transition between the operation phases have been met.

Last, but not least, while contributing to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Central Mediterranean, the mission is also aimed at preventing the further loss of life at sea.

In these days, many International Institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGO) have honored, with various initiatives, the two year anniversary of the tragedy in which at least 366 persons lost their lives at the shore off Lampedusa. Since then, 03 October 2013, migration flow had been unceasing, requiring a restless commitment firstly of the Italian Navy and Institutions, under the framework of Operation Mare Nostrum and Mare Sicuro, and then of NGOs and the European Union through FRONTEXs Operation TRITON and EUNAVFOR MED.

Numbers indicate the scale of the problem: since the beginning of 2015, almost 522,000 refugees and migrants landed in Europe and while the eastern/Balkan route (considered a land route) had seen an eightfold increase, the flow on the central route was still slightly higher than last year, but it remains without doubt, the riskiest. Despite the international effort to save lives at sea, 2,2% of transiting migrants died on the central Mediterranean route, while on the other eastern route, that rate drops to 0,06%.

EUNAVFOR MED therefore is also focused on decreasing the number of people dying through efforts to discourage and restrict would be refugees and migrants undertaking this most dangerous of journeys. Notwithstanding this, to date in 2015, more than 130,000 had chosen the central Mediterranean route, of which 2703 perished during the trip.

With the contribution of 22 EU member States (Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherland, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and UK), Phase 1 of Operation EUNAVFOR MED started on 26 June 2015. Embarked in the flagship, Italian Aircraft Carrier CAVOUR, the appointed EUNAVFOR MED Force Commander, Rear Admiral (LH) Andrea GUEGLIO (Italian Navy) led his force into their Joint Operation Area of 525,000 NM2 (wider than 6 times the extension of Italy) in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The Force reached FOC a month later following integration of Germanys frigate FGS SCHLESWIG-HOLSTEIN and Auxiliary ship FGS WERRA, and the UKs Hydrographic ship HMS ENTERPRISE.

Additionally, the surface units were supported by airborne surveillance assets, including 2 Italian EH101 and one UK Merlin MK 2 MPRA helicopters, and a French Falcon 50, Luxembourg SW3 Merlin III and Spanish P3B Orion MPAs. Since then, in 5 weeks, EUNAVFOR MED assets sighted suspected smugglers and traffickers on the high sea in 20 occasions, which during Phase 2 will be the subject of interception and detention efforts.

Following EUNAVFOR MED activities, 16 suspected smugglers and traffickers have so far been prosecuted by the Italian authorities with 16 boats seized. Last but not least, 3076 lives have been saved at sea including 2273 men, 635 women, 164 children and 4 babies. Key to success for the 1st phase has certainly been the close cooperation established by EUNAVFOR MED with all governmental and non-governmental regional and international actors including the Italian Operation Mare Sicuro, FRONTEX Operation TRITON and also with EUROPOL and EUROJUST.

On 03 September 2015, following a Mission Update briefing granted to the EU Political and Security Committee by Admiral Credendino on 26th of August, the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, announced that: The operation has fulfilled all the military objectives of Phase one, that were related to the collection of information and intelligence. That is why I have proposed to EU Defence ministers today to discuss the transition to Phase Two of the operation - that would mean going to the capture and disposal of vessels, including those escorting the migrants and refugees.

With this Statement, the process for the transition of the Operation to its second phase officially started. With the full support of the EU towards combating this crisis, in only 25 days, the Council has made a positive assessment on the transition (14 September) and MS have pledged additional assets to the EUNAVFOR MED force, enabling this more active phase. Finally, on 28th September, the EU Political and Security Committee approved the necessary new set of Rules of Engagement and announced the decision to move to the second stage of the Operation on the 07 October 2015.

Since 7 October 2015, as agreed by the EU Ambassadors within the Security Committee on 28 September, the operation moved to phase 2 International Waters, which entails boarding, search, seizure and diversion, on the high seas, of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking. On 20 June 2016, the Council extended until 27 July 2017 Operation Sophias mandate reinforcing it by adding two supporting tasks:

  1. training of the Libyan coastguards and navy;
  2. contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

On 30 August and on 6 September 2016, the PSC authorized the commencement of the capacity building and training and the commencement of the contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo.

EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia is designed around 4 phases:

  1. the first consists of the deployment of forces to build a comprehensive understanding of smuggling activity and methods, and this phase is now complete;
  2. phase two foresees the boarding, search, seizure and diversion of smugglers' vessels on the high seas under the conditions provided for by applicable international law. This activity will be extended into Territorial Waters upon the release of any applicable United Nation Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) and the concerned coastal State consent;
  3. the third phase expands this activity further; up to and including taking operational measures against vessels and related assets suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking inside the coastal states territory. Once again, this is subject to the necessary legal framework established by UNSCR and following coastal state consent;
  4. finally, the fourth and last phase will consist of withdrawal of forces and completion of the operation.

The European Council is responsible for assessing whether the conditions for transition between the operation phases have been met. On legal side, all of the activities undertaken in each phase adhere to and respect international law, including human rights, humanitarian and refugee law and the non refoulement principle meaning that no rescued persons can be disembarked in a third country.

Military assets and personnel are provided by the contributing states with the running costs and personnel costs being met on a national basis. In addition, there is a common budget of 11.82 million for a 12 months period (until 27 July 2016) agreed and monitored by the Athena Committee of Member States. For the period 28 July 2016 to 27 July 2017, the reference amount for the common costs of EUNAVFOR MED operation SOPHIA shall be 6.7 million.

A record 5,000 migrants are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, following two shipwrecks on 22 December 2016 in which some 100 people, mainly West Africans, were feared dead. Two overcrowded inflatable dinghies capsized in the Strait of Sicily after leaving Libya for Italy, the International Organization for Migration or IOM, and the UN refugee agency UNHCR said. "Those two incidents together appear to be the numbers that would bring this year's total up to over to 5,000 (deaths), which is a new high that we have reported during this crisis," IOM spokesman Joel Millman told a Geneva briefing. Just under 3,800 migrants perished at sea during 2015, according to UNHCR and IOM figures.

In 2016, a record high number of refugees and migrants sought to reach the European shores across the Central Mediterranean. Over 181,000 people were detected on the route in 2016, the vast majority of whom reached Italy. Almost 90 percent set out from Libya. Many were fleeing conflict or poverty in their native countries. 2016 was also a record year for the number of lives lost at sea: over 4,500 people drowned in the attempt to cross. The Central Mediterranean route is now once again the dominant route for migrants and refugees to reach Europe as it used to be before the surge in arrivals through the Eastern Mediterranean in late 2015 and early 2016.

Would-be migrants and refugees in Libya are being subjected to torture, rape and even execution by the human traffickers who are holding them, a newspaper report said on 29 January 2017, citing German diplomats posted in Africa. "Executions of migrants who cannot pay, torture, rapes, blackmail and abandonment in the desert are the order of the day there," the "Welt am Sonntag" quoted an internal report from the German embassy in the capital of Niger, Niamey, as saying.

The diplomats' report, intended for the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and various ministries, spoke of "the most serious, systematic human rights violations," the paper said. The report said that the "concentration-camp-like" conditions in the "private prisons" were documented by credible photos and videos shot with cell phones.

"Eyewitnesses spoke of exactly five executions by shooting every week in one prison - announced in advance and [carried out] on Fridays to make room for new arrivals: in other words, to increase the human 'throughput' and thus the profit of the operators," the "Welt am Sonntag" said.

The head of the parliamentary party of the Greens in the European Parliament, Ska Keller, told the paper that the European Union should not strike any deal with the Libyan government with regard to its taking back refugees and migrants.

European Union leaders meeting in Malta on 03 February 2017 adopted a number of plans in cooperation with Libya aimed at cutting the number of migrants attempting the sometimes perilous sea crossing from Africa to Europe. Among other things, they agreed to give financial aid to the Libyan coast guard to help it intercept boats shortly after they set off. They also intend to set up "safe" refugee camps in Libya.

Around 250 African migrants were feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean after a rescue boat found two partially submerged rubber dinghies off Libya. A boat of Spanish charity Pro-Activa Open Arms on 23 March 2017 recovered five floating corpses close to the dinghies, about 15 miles off the Libyan coast. "We don't think there can be any other explanation than that these dinghies would have been full of people," said the charity's spokesperson Laura Lanuza. These boats would typically have been carrying 120-140 migrants each, she added. Lanuza said the bodies recovered were African men with estimated ages of between 16 and 25.

"(Their) lives have been swallowed by the Mediterranean mass grave and the shame of the policies that allow it to happen. If the victims were European, they would fill headlines, but they are victims invisible to their interests," said the rescue organization. "There is news we would rather not give. There are days when we confront death, not life. Today is one of them," the group said.

Before this tragedy, the IOM estimated that 559 people had died or gone missing trying to reach Italy so far in 2017. For the year 2016, an estimated 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.



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