No EU sea rescues as migrant arrivals to Italy plummet

As the number of arrivals on the central Mediterranean route drops to its lowest ever since 2015, the EU is suspending ship patrols conducted by Operation Sophia. The air and sea patrols were launched in 2015 to disrupt smuggling networks and rescue migrants stranded in the Mediterranean.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the Italian Ministry of Interior reported a total of 532 migrant arrivals in Italy by sea as of 3 April 2019. Malta received 244 migrants, and the Libyan coastguard returned 1,073 migrants in the first three months of 2019.

This year’s migrant arrivals in Italy have decreased by more than 92 per cent compared to last year. In 2017, there were fifty times more arrivals. However, the proportion of people reported dead or missing in the central Mediterranean is now one-in-10, a threefold increase compared to the last two years.  

The EU had initially put forward a proposal to renew Operation Sophia’s mandate to rescue migrants stranded in the central Mediterranean by six months beyond 31 March 2019. But Italy said it would reject the proposal unless other EU states commit to share the burden of welcoming rescued migrants. As none of the EU member states volunteered to step up, Sophia’s naval operations was put to an end.

In the absence of naval patrols, the operation will only continue its air patrol and cooperation with the Libyan coastguard.

Aid agencies and rights groups have condemned the decision.

“Having already used every excuse in the book to banish NGO rescue boats from the Mediterranean, and having already stopped carrying out rescues several months ago, EU governments are now removing their own ships, leaving no one to save the lives of women, men and children in peril,” said Amnesty International’s Matteo de Bellis.

“It shows again that the EU considers it acceptable to let people die at sea as a deterrence for migration,” said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, of Doctors Without Borders. “Meanwhile, European countries continue to support the Libyan coastguard despite their clear lack of responsiveness to distress calls, and knowing that those people the Libyan coastguard do intercept will end up in horrible and inhumane detention centres.”

Italy has previously blocked humanitarian rescue vessels from embarking on its ports. With the closure of Operation Sophia’s naval mission, the Libyan coastguard, which intercepts and returns migrants to Libya, will be the only active body rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.

TMP – 13/04/2019

Photo credit: Pointbreak/Shutterstock. Photo caption: An Italian Coast Guard plane patrols the Mediterranean for smugglers boats, August 2016.