The European Union’s Operation EUNAVFOR MED “Sophia” will end this March, to be replaced by a different operation altogether. First much vaunted, then much taunted, Operation Sophia is the perfect symbol of how poisonous the debate around rescuing lives at sea in the Mediterranean has become over the past few years. And it is also a symbol of something larger: the failure of EU Member States to come to an agreement on how to manage migration in a sensible, rational, and evidence-based way.
Between May 2015, when it was launched, and July 2018, the day of its last rescue in the Central Mediterranean, Operation EUNAVFOR MED saved around 43,000 migrants. The Operation was nicknamed “Sophia” after a rescued woman gave birth to a girl aboard a ship posted to the operation, in August 2015. The ship was a German frigate, and the baby girl was the first child to have ever been born aboard a German military ship.
The EU operation, based in Italy and with an Italian commander right from the start, was not born with the specific mandate to rescue migrants at sea, but to counter smuggling and trafficking. But international law mandates that people aboard boats in distress should always be rescued and brought to a place of safety. Obviously, persons aboard rickety dinghies, often without a functioning engine, half-deflated and in the middle of the Mediterranean do qualify for rescue, and that’s what the operation has done for more than three years. It then proceeded to disable boats so that smugglers or traffickers could not re-use them: in the years, the operation disabled over 550 boats.
Increasingly, however, the operation came under fire, for two reasons. First, in Italy there was mounting criticism that an EU-wide operation would always disembark migrants in a single member state. Suddenly, what appeared to be a reasonable assumption – that the operation would disembark migrants in the closest port of a sufficiently large EU country (Malta, with its small territory and a population of less than 500,000, certainly does not qualify) – became part of a conspiration theory that claimed that then-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had traded disembarking migrants in Italy for more budgetary flexibility.
Second, since at least late 2016 the operation became embroiled in the larger context of the war against private rescuers on NGO boats. In particular, rescue ships were increasingly accused to be acting as a “pull factor” for migrants departing from Libya. According to the claim, the closer and more frequently rescue ships operated to the Libyan coast, the likelier that migrants would attempt to cross from Libya to Europe. This claim felt so perfectly logical that few questioned it, feeling that the evidence would no doubt corroborate it. Most strikingly, one of the first official claims along the “pull factor” argument came from a confidential report by Frontex, the EU border agency. And to top it off, even Frontex had its own naval operation at the time of the accusations: called Triton then (2014-2018), it is now named Themis (2018-ongoing).
So, while private rescue ships operated by NGOs were also accused of being complicit of smugglers and traffickers (a claim that has never been proven after over three years and over 18 separate investigations), Operation Sophia was simply accused of being an unintentional magnet. Slowly but surely, many political parties in Europe started to turn against rescuers in the Central Mediterranean, and therefore against Sophia as well. In Italy, both Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League and the populist Five Star Movement advocated for its closure.
EU Member States have held differing positions on the operation. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended it multiple times. But even within her party, the CDU, her position has gradually lost support. An indication that not many countries in Europe supported Sophia came as soon as a new Italian government was inaugurated in June 2018. Led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and supported by the League and the Five Star Movement, the Italian government advocated for the removal of Sophia’s ships from day one. And the support for the EU’s naval mission from the other 27 countries was so low that, in just one month, almost all of Sophia’s ships had disappeared from the Central Mediterranean despite the mandate remaining the same. After July 2018, Operation Sophia did not carry out any single rescue anymore, nor did it disrupt any smuggling or trafficking operation.
EU Member States’ compliance with Italy’s requests came several months before the naval part of Operation Sophia’s mission was formally terminated, in March 2019. On that month, the paradox of a naval mission with no ships became reality: Sophia was only left with aerial and satellite assets.
In all this time, the claim that public and private rescue missions acted as a pull factor has seldom been put to the test. Anecdotal evidence seemed to support the existence of a “pull factor”: after Italy launched its Operation “Mare Nostrum” in response to one of the biggest shipwrecks of all time, in October 2013, departures from Libya skyrocketed. But such evidence could be paired with opposite evidence: in and after July 2017, with two EU-wide naval operations ongoing (Sophia and Triton), departures from Libya plummeted by 75%, and by mid-2018 they were 95% lower than in 2016: irregular arrivals to Italy went back to “normal” despite ships ready to rescue migrants at sea.
In absence of a public test, me and my colleague Eugenio Cusumano had an idea. In 2019, after a campaign against NGOs and EU-wide naval assets by Italy’s Conte government, all public rescue ships had been removed from the Central Mediterranean. All that was left off Libya were either no rescue ships, or NGOs. We therefore asked: does the arrival of NGOs very close to Libya’s coast increase irregular migrant departures from Libya?
We collected data for the best part of 2019, and published a paper that found that it was not so. We found that NGOs’ rescue activities did not increase migrant departures from Libya, which remained almost exactly identical to when no ship was present in the area. Departures seemed to be affected by meteorological conditions – with rising temperatures slowly increasing departures, and strong winds sharply decreasing them – and political conditions in Libya, not the arrival of rescue boats. We continue to collect data up to this day, and in the period between January 2019 and mid-February 2020 no “pull factor” can be found.
All this shows where the EU is failing. It would be naïve to argue that policy-makers should not be wary of a “pull factor”. However, our findings show that even what seems logical at first might end up being biased. They calls for a more cautious, evidence-based approach to migration. Today, we have the data and the tools to test our beliefs, in order to strike the right balance between ethics and security concerns. A reasonable strategy would be to start with a small number of ships, and test out whether they increase migrant departures in a significant way. If they don’t, then the situation is “win-win”: we can rescue more lives without running the risk of going back to a situation of high arrivals.
Sadly, this is not the road chosen by the EU. Last week, EU foreign ministers chose to wind down Operation Sophia and launch a different operation altogether. With the explicit goal to “avoid a pull factor”, the new operation is expected to operate more to the east, close to a section of Libya’s coast (Cyrenaica) where no migrants have departed since at least 2017. Also, EU leaders are so scared that they said that if the operation shows any sign of acting as a “pull factor” anyway, they will suspend it. They did not say how they will certify that the operation is encouraging migrants to depart. This leaves the new operation weaker, and more subject to the political whims of riotous member states.
As the debate on Sophia shows, despite low irregular arrivals to Europe seas remain rough on migration policy. But our aim, at least, should be not to navigate in the wrong direction.
This article was originally published by Zeit