Brussels – The European Union on Friday formally extended its naval operation targeting human smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea by three months until the end of March.
Operation Sophia was launched in 2015. It is tasked with apprehending smugglers and disrupting their business model, while also training the Libyan coast guard and enforcing a weapons embargo on the conflict-ridden north African country.
“The operation contributes to EU efforts for the return of stability and security in Libya and to maritime security in the central Mediterranean region,” the EU wrote in a statement.
To date, Operation Sophia has also rescued more than 49,000 migrants, most of whom were brought to Italian ports as agreed with Rome back in 2015.
However, Italy’s current government has taken a hard-line approach to migration and had opposed a renewal of Operation Sophia’s mandate unless other member states agreed to take in more arrivals.
The three-month extension buys more time to tackle the underlying dispute, which has pitted Rome against EU countries that oppose any moves to redistribute asylum seekers within the bloc.
Even those agreeing that more should be done to help frontline states such as Italy have taken issue with Rome’s approach.
At the heart of the dispute are the EU’s so-called Dublin rules on asylum, which stipulate that the EU country where asylum seekers first arrive is responsible for them.
Long-running efforts to reform these rules have so far failed, however EU officials have argued that this should not prevent Operation Sophia from continuing its work.