by Sydney Walters
Although the European migration crisis, which heightened in 2015 after the Syrian conflict, has relatively steadied, the debate over migration and member-state obligations towards migration continues. Despite the fact that the numbers of migrants entering Europe from the Mediterranean has dramatically decreased since 2015, the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has skyrocketed, alarming many human rights organizations and raising doubts over the humanitarian prospects of the European Union’s (EU) migration scheme. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an average of six migrants die each day crossing the Mediterranean, a statistic that hardly screams humanitarian.
The European Union’s current scheme in the Mediterranean involves the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean, also known as “Operation Sophia,” a military campaign created in 2015 that aims to combat human smuggling from Libya into Europe. With hopes to curve immigrant crossing into Europe, Operation Sophia campaigned as a humanitarian solution to the migration problem, a way to combat dangerous sea journeys—but the realization of this humanitarian prospect remains limited. Operation Sophia, which trains the Libyan coastguard and allows for the interception of human-smuggling boats, has added to the dangerous and inhumane conditions facing migrants from North Africa. Although its mission has supposedly saved 49,000 people from the sea, as reported by a POLITICO article, thousands have remained stranded at sea and destined for death.
The military operation, although supposedly working under humanitarian concerns, operates under a strict political agenda instead, focusing on diverting migrants from European ports to Libyan ones. The agenda, mostly arranged for by the Italian government who remains most invested in the Mediterranean migration debate, allows Italian authorities to evade international obligations. Under such international obligations, ships are required to carry out search and rescue operations and to bring shipwrecked peoples, despite nationality, to the closest safe port. By intercepting migrant boats off the coast of Libya, Operation Sophia works to keep arrivals of shipwrecked migrants to European ports at a minimum.
Italian ports may be rewarding from the system, but migrants on the Mediterranean surely aren’t. The interception of smuggling-boats by Libyan coastguard officials has backfired, unintentionally making sea crossings more dangerous for migrants. As smugglers’ wooden boats have been seized by coastguard officials in the scheme, the smuggling businesses have opted for cheaper and more dangerous alternatives, like rubber boats. The rubber boats, which are often overfilled to maximize profit, keep the businesses running and the deaths rising. According to a report by UNHCR, a total of 2,275 migrants died in 2018 while crossing the Mediterranean, allowing for one death per every 51 arrivals.
Along with dangerous journeys, shipwrecked migrants and refugees face continued danger at Libyan detention centers, where many are subjected to inhumane and arbitrary detention. Such degrading conditions include torture, sexual violence, and forced labor. EU policies, specifically those that push Libyan officials to intercept migrant ships close to Libyan shores, keep migrants in Libyan hands and at Libyan disposal.
The journey to Europe is a dangerous one, and the EU, aware of this danger, remains complicit in allowing for it. Despite rising death tolls at sea and rising awareness of the inhumane conditions presented at Libyan detention centers, the EU continues to fund the Libyan Coast Guard, allowing for the persistence of human rights abuses.
The debate around Operation Sophia continues, as its mandate is up to end late March. It’s clear that the mission, although succeeding to some extent, negatively impacted the human rights crisis in the Mediterranean and requires further reform. Although the migration debate focuses on Operation Sophia and Italy’s recent refusal to accept shipwrecked migrants rescued by non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) vessels, the migration debate and subsequent EU policy must focus on relieving political conflicts between member states. Operation Sophia acted as a temporary solution for a particular member state, namely Italy, and left the migration dilemma largely unsolved.
The broader problem facing the EU is not whether or not to continue Operation Sophia, but whether or not a more comprehensive, long-term solution can be implemented. The debate should focus on reforming the EU’s Dublin III Regulation law, informally known as the Dublin asylum rule, which stipulates that the country of first arrival must process asylum seekers. Due to high numbers of migrants arriving at southern European borders, the Dublin rule burdens Italian and Grecian ports, and more recently, Spanish ports, adding to unequal burden-sharing across EU member states and intensifying tensions between states.
In order to effectively address the human rights migration crisis and to offer long-term solutions, the EU must reform the Dublin asylum rule, allowing for a shared responsibility of asylum seekers across all member states. Solidarity between member states must be increased in order to allow for equal burden sharing and for a procedure that maximizes protection for refugees. Despite the rise in right-wing sentiments across Europe, of which offer hostility toward migrant flows, solidarity amongst EU member states must be improved and hostile sentiments relinquished, to some extent, in order to ensure equal sharing of migrant flows.
Although migration trends are receding, it is unlikely that migration patterns will ever come to a complete halt. Migration to Europe is imminent and a system that keeps diverting migration away from Europe will eventually crack. The humanitarian concerns that once influenced refugee policy must return. The so-called humanitarian Operation Sophia must be acknowledged for what it’s not and member states must make better attempts at countering, not aiding humanitarian abuses.
Sydney Walters is an American study abroad student at UCD. At her home university of Boston College, she is a third year student and studies Political Science and English Literature. She aspires to attend law school and has interests related to international law and policies. This blog was completed for the UCD Politics module: Introduction to EU Politics.
 UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, “Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders. January—December 2018,” January 2019: 5. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/67712
 EUNAVFOR MED, operation Sophia, “Mission,” Updated 10 April 2018: 1-2. https://www.operationsophia.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Mission.pdf
 Campbell, Zach, “Europe’s deadly migration strategy: Officials knew EU military operation made Mediterranean crossing more dangerous,” POLITICO (February 2019). https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-deadly-migration-strategy-leaked-documents/
 Human Rights Watch, “No Escape from Hell: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya,” (January 2019). https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/01/21/no-escape-hell/eu-policies-contribute-abuse-migrants-libya#
 UNHCR, 5-6.
 Ammirati, Annapaola, “What is the Dublin Regulation,” Open Migration (December 2015). https://openmigration.org/en/analyses/what-is-the-dublin-regulation/
Ammirati, Annapaola, “What is the Dublin Regulation,” Open Migration (December 2015). https://openmigration.org/en/analyses/what-is-the-dublin-regulation/
Campbell, Zach, “Europe’s deadly migration strategy: Officials knew EU military operation made Mediterranean crossing more dangerous,” POLITICO (February 2019). https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-deadly-migration-strategy-leaked-documents/
EUNAVFOR MED, operation Sophia, “Mission,” Updated 10 April 2018: 1-2. https://www.operationsophia.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Mission.pdf
Human Rights Watch, “No Escape from Hell: EU Policies Contribute to Abuse of Migrants in Libya,” (January 2019). https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/01/21/no-escape-hell/eu-policies-contribute-abuse-migrants-libya#
Taylor, Paul, “Salvini’s Sophia soapbox: Why Rome may pull the plug on the EU’s military mission in the Mediterranean,” POLITICO (12 March 2019). https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-matteo-salvini-sophia-soapbox/
UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, “Desperate Journeys: Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe and at Europe’s borders. January—December 2018,” January 2019: 5. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/67712
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Legal Brief on International Law and Rescue at Sea,” UNHCR.org. https://www.unhcr.org/487b47f12.pdf