Saturday 19 October 2019

Naval service ending EU migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean

The LÉ Eithne taking part in the search at Blacksod Picture: Steve Humphreys
The LÉ Eithne taking part in the search at Blacksod Picture: Steve Humphreys
Tom Brady

Tom Brady

THE Naval Service is ending its deployment in the EU's big migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean.

The move follows a decision by the EU to stop maritime patrols of the sea between north Africa and Europe and to focus, instead, on air patrols and closer co-ordination and co-operation with Libyan authorities.

Naval vessel, LE Eithne, with a crew of about 60, was due to return to the Mediterranean at the end of the month.

But the patrol vessel will now remain at home  after previously being involved in the rescue of more than 500 migrants from the Mediterranean.

The mandate for the operation, codenamed Sophia, was due to expire on Sunday but will now be extended for a further six months with a similar aim of disrupting people smuggling and trafficking in the Med.

The Eithne, which is the Naval Service flag ship, first deployed to the Med in May 2015, originally as part of Operation Pontus and during that operation Naval Service ships and crews rescued a total of 16,808 people until it ended its involvement in mid 2017.

The Naval Service then switched from the largely humanitarian focused operation to Operation Sophia, which was more pro-active in preventing illegal immigration.

A tougher anti immigrant stance in some EU countries such as Italy, where the government decided it would no longer accept those rescued at sea, resulted in the decision to scrap the maritime patrols and rely on air patrols only.

One EU diplomat said last night: "It is awkward but this was the only way forward, given Italy's position, because nobody wanted the Sophia mission completely shut down."

The Department of Defence said last night that EU states had agreed last December to extend Sophia's mandate for three months to provide time for a solution to be found in relation to the disembarkation of migrants rescued under this mission.

Further discussions took place this week at EU level about reviewing the mandate beyond this Sunday.

As no solution to the issue was found, the department said, it was expected a decision would be adopted in the coming days to extend Sophia for six months with a temporary suspension of its naval assets while EU member states continued working to find a solution.

Sophia's mandate would continue to be implemented through strengthening surveillance by air assets as well as reinforcing training support to the Libyan coastguard and navy.

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