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Decision to end migrant rescue operation labelled 'outrageous abdication of responsibilities'

The EU is winding down Operation Sophia amid pressure from Italy and other countries.

Around 1,000 refugees from Africa disembarked from navy ship Reina Sofia in Salerno, Italy, in September 2016.
Around 1,000 refugees from Africa disembarked from navy ship Reina Sofia in Salerno, Italy, in September 2016.
Image: Michele Amoruso/SIPA USA/PA Images

A BODY REPRESENTING over 20 Irish organisations has criticised the European Union’s decision to end its migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea.

The mandate for Operation Sophia was due to expire yesterday but was extended until 30 September.

Over the next six months, the operation will focus on air rather than maritime patrols, and rely on close coordination with Libya.

Irish ship the LÉ Eithne was among the vessels used in Operation Sophia.

The Irish Refugee and Migrant Coalition today expressed serious concerns about the development.

Colm O’Gorman – Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, a member of the IRMC – said the decision is “an outrageous abdication of EU governments’ responsibilities”.

“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.”

O’Gorman said people who are forced to return to Libya face threats such as being arbitrarily detained, tortured, raped or killed. 

‘Risk of death has increased’ 

Nick Henderson – CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, the current convenor of the IRMC – noted that the Irish naval presence in the Mediterranean has rescued more than 18,000 people to date.

“While the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean has decreased, the risk of death has increased,” Henderson said.

Close to 2,300 people died when trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe last year. 

Henderson called on the Irish government to “work with other EU governments with a view to maintaining the presence of the Irish navy and to continue but improve Operation Sophia”.

He said there needs to be “a complete overhaul” of how the EU approaches the issue, adding that “real solidarity with countries like Greece and Italy, safe and legal routes to protection, planned contingency for rescue boats and ceasing push-back to Libya” is needed.

‘Extremely proud’  

When contacted by TheJournal.ie about the development, a spokesperson for the Defence Forces said Irish naval service ships and their crews “have excelled in overseas deployments since 2015 as part of both Operation Pontus and Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean”.

Our sailors were tested alongside navies of our European partners and Ireland can be extremely proud of their performance, having rescued over 18,000 people from the sea. 

“These deployments will be seen as a historic period in our Navy’s development.”

The spokesperson stated that while the naval element of this particular operation has been “stood down for now”, the Irish naval service “looks forward to future opportunities to deploy”.

45,000 people rescued

Since its launch in 2015, after a series of tragic shipwrecks, Operation Sophia rescued around 45,000 people and resulted in the arrests of some 150 traffickers.

The election of a far right-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.

“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,” EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said last week.

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.

Citing Europe’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, Siobhán McGee, Chief Executive Officer of ActionAid Ireland, said this country “can and should do more, along with other EU leaders, to increase resources for the real integration of migrants, who have so much to offer our societies”.

“Ireland’s response must find solutions based on the legal frameworks and human rights principles to which we are already committed; instead of rowing back,” she said in a statement issued today. 

Contains reporting from © AFP 2019  

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Órla Ryan

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