Brussels – EU member states have extended the landmark Sophia rescue operation in the central Mediterranean for another 18 months amid growing concern at the huge number of migrants crossing to Europe.
More than 100,000 from North Africa and the Middle East have made the trip so far this year, often in flimsy boats run by unscrupulous people smugglers, according to UN figures.
Most have landed in Italy, which complains bitterly that its EU partners have not done enough to share the burden.
EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said that since Sophia was set up in 2015 after thousands of migrants drowned, “many suspected smugglers have been apprehended and many lives saved”.
“Today (July 25), I’m particularly proud to announce that the mandate of Operation Sophia has been unanimously renewed,” Mogherini said in a statement.
Sophia was originally a straightforward rescue operation but Mogherini pushed for it to take on increased powers and responsibilities, including the use of force to stop and destroy smugglers’ boats in international waters.
That move was seen as part of Mogherini’s efforts to give the European Union some real teeth to deal with the wider security issues posed by the migrant crisis.
Additionally, Sophia took on the role of training the Libyan coastguard and navy, and helping implement a UN arms embargo against strife-torn Libya, the setting-off point for most of the migrants.
Member states agreed that Sophia would take on several new tasks – to monitor how well the Libyan coastguard trainees worked out and to “conduct new surveillance activities and gather information on illegal trafficking of oil exports from Libya”.
At the same time, it would look to increase information-sharing on human trafficking, a hugely profitable business for the criminal gangs involved.