SOPHIA to IRINI: A Shift in EU Mediterranean Operations

5 November, 2020

“Sophia is finished, we have a new mission and a clear demarcation line against abuses of traffickers” said Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in February after a meeting with EU Foreign Affairs Ministers about launching a new naval operation in the Central Mediterranean. On 31 March 2020, Operation European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) SOPHIA was officially terminated and replaced by Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI. This change marked a significant shift in the focus and priorities of EU external migration policy in the Mediterranean Sea.

Operation SOPHIA

In response to the surge in irregular migration flow to Europe and the large-scale shipwrecks that plagued the Mediterranean in 2015, the EU began taking measures to prevent further loss of life at sea, combat human smugglers, and stop illegal migration flows. In other words, in 2015, the EU began to direct its migration policies towards external border control. Such a focus is visible in the European Agenda on Migration drafted in 2015, which provides a comprehensive approach for the EU to address the current and future challenges of migration. One of the measures proposed in the Agenda was identifying and targeting human smuggling networks through anti-smuggling operations.

On 18 May 2015, the European Council established an EU naval operation force, Operation SOPHIA, whose core mission was “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.” Rather than a self-standing initiative, Operation SOPHIA reflected a more general political and institutional context, as it was one way that the EU attempted to stem migration flows to Europe by prioritizing securitization.

SOPHIA’s original mandate consisted of three phases: first, monitoring and gathering information on migrant networks and smuggling activities; second, conducting boarding, search, seizure, and diversion of vessels suspected of smuggling on the high seas and in territorial waters upon the consent from the respected coastal state (such as Libya) or a resolution by the UN Security Council (UNSC); and third, taking “all measures necessary” against suspected human smuggling vessels within the coastal states’ territory with the appropriate mandate from the UNSC or coastal state consent.

While the main goal of the operation was to stop the smuggling business, the mission ended up rescuing thousands of people trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. However, its performance of search and rescue (SAR) activities brought political tensions, which led SOPHIA to undergo several changes. For example, its naval assets were suspended on 29 March 2019 due to a dispute between member states, particularly with Italy, over disembarkation points and relocation of migrants. This change meant that the operation’s mandate was carried out only through air assets, together with Libyan coastguard and naval support.

Operation IRINI

On 31 March 2020, the Council officially discontinued Operation SOPHIA and replaced it with Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI. As a direct response to the commitments established by the participants at the Berlin Conference on Libya on 19 January 2020, Operation IRINI’s core aim is the implementation of the United Nations arms embargo on Libya through aerial, satellite and maritime assets. As secondary tasks, IRINI continues to monitor illicit exports from Libya, train the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy, and disrupt smuggling and trafficking networks. It has a renewable one year mandate and EU member states are required to review it every four months to ensure that it is not acting as a “pull factor” by encouraging migrants to cross the Mediterranean.

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and President of the Council stated the following about IRINI: “Only political solutions and the full respect of the UN arms embargo will bring a solution to the Libyan crisis. But diplomacy cannot succeed unless it is backed by action. This operation will be essential and a clear contribution to promoting peace in our immediate neighbourhood through a permanent ceasefire.”

What does IRINI signal about EU external migration policy?

Operation SOPHIA and Operation IRINI are distinct operations. While SOPHIA’s core mission was to combat human smuggling, IRINI’s goal is narrower, as it is solely aimed at implementing the UN’s arms embargo on Libya. The differences in the operations reflect the fluctuating priorities of EU external migration policy.

First, IRINI’s focus on arms trafficking rather than on human trafficking suggests that addressing irregular migration is no longer as urgent in EU external migration policy. The wide concern over human smuggling, which was very present in the 2015 European Agenda on Migration, seems to have disappeared. Instead, the EU’s focus in the Mediterranean now lies in preserving its own interest in the ongoing Libyan civil war. By stemming the flow of weapons into Libya through Operation IRINI, the EU wants to ensure peace and stability in the country. This difference in the two operations sheds light on how quickly EU external interests can change. Five years ago, targeting human smuggling was a top priority because thousands of people were dying in the Mediterranean in an attempt to get to Europe. Now, the conversation around human smuggling has taken a back seat.

Second, unlike Operation SOPHIA, which in its mission stated that it will “prevent the further loss of life at sea,” IRINI’s tasks make no mention of this. Even though Operation SOPHIA was not a SAR initiative, it was criticized by EU member states for encouraging irregular migration by rescuing distressed migrant ships. This fear by member states, however, was not substantiated with evidence that these kinds of operations were actually increasing the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Purposefully omitting a prevention of loss of life at sea in IRINI’s mandate demonstrates the EU’s fear to appear as playing any role in encouraging such migration.

Concluding remarks

The transition from Operation SOPHIA to Operation IRINI highlights the shifting priorities of EU external migration policy. The differences between the two operations expose the EU’s attempt to move away from policies around irregular migration and SAR activities. Why the EU is no longer directing their attention towards mitigating further loss of life at sea and combating human smuggling remains a central question. Is it because fewer people are migrating across the Central Mediterranean? Is it because the EU is scared of public opinion and wants to distance itself from being viewed as aiding migration? Or is it because the EU has struggled to create effective policy in Libya to end the conflict? While Operation SOPHIA had many flaws, at least it was not afraid to admit its moral duty to save lives. EU member states should either be clearer as to why they no longer prioritize saving lives in their new Mediterranean operation or modify IRINI’s mandate to include a prevention of loss of life at sea. People are still drowning in the Mediterranean and no longer acknowledging this reflects poorly on Europe’s value of human life. Irini is the Greek word for peace, so it is ironic that preventing loss of life is not more central to its mission.

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