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EU Operation Sophia failing to disrupt people smuggling, says Committee

13 May 2016

The EU External Affairs Sub-Committee publishes its report into Operation Sophia, and says the EU naval mission to tackle people smuggling in the central Mediterranean is not working.


On 22 June 2015, the European Union launched a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operation to disrupt the business model of people smuggling in the Southern Central Mediterranean. On 28 September 2015, the mission was renamed Operation Sophia, after a baby born aboard one of the mission's ships off the coast of Libya. It patrols the high seas off the coast of Libya to Italy, gathering information, rescuing migrants, and destroying boats used by smugglers.

Through the course of the inquiry, the Committee took evidence on whether Operation Sophia is delivering its mandate, progress to date in gathering intelligence on smuggling networks, the appropriateness of the mission's mandate, plans for the next phases of the mission and how Operation Sophia works alongside other actors including Frontex's Operation Triton off the coast of Italy, the work of NGOs in the Mediterranean Sea and the new NATO mission in the Aegean.

Key findings

Assessment of the current phases of the mission

  • Over 50 smugglers have been arrested by Operation Sophia, but these arrests have been of low-level targets, and not the key figures within the smuggling networks.
  • 80 smuggling vessels have been destroyed to date. However this has resulted in the smugglers simply changing tactics and shifting from wooden boats to dinghies, which are more unsafe.
  • As Operation Sophia is currently unable to operate in Libyan waters or onshore, significant gaps remain in Operation Sophia's understanding of the smugglers networks, in particular how they operate on Libyan territory.
  • A mission acting only on the high seas is not able to disrupt effectively the smuggling networks. There is therefore little prospect of Operation Sophia overturning the business model of people smuggling.

Future phases

  • The weakness of the Libyan state has been a major cause of the rise in smugglers using this route through the Mediterranean.
  • It is vital for an internationally recognised and accepted Libyan government to be in place in order for Operation Sophia to succeed in disrupting the business model of the smugglers in its planned further phases, however, it is not certain that the new Libyan Government will be in a position to support Operation Sophia in the short term.
  • Operation Sophia therefore does not, and the report argues, cannot, deliver its mandate.

Search and rescue

  • By March 2016, 9,000 people had been rescued by Operation Sophia.
  • The report commends Operation  Sophia's work in search and rescue, but notes that this is not its core mandate.

Bigger picture

  • There is an urgent need to address the root causes of irregular migration to Europe.
  • The report calls on the EU to create a wider strategy, which would build resilience in the countries of origin, target the profits of the smugglers, provide support in-country, and inform and engage the public on the phenomenon of the mass movement of people


Commenting on the findings of the report, Chairman of the Committee, Lord Tugendhat, said:

"The EU naval mission in the central Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, patrols an area that's around six times larger than Italy and this was always going to present an enormous challenge.

"Its aim is to disrupt the business model of the smugglers, through intelligence gathering and intercepting and destroying vessels used by smugglers.

"Our report stresses that the operation is succeeding in carrying out its separate search and rescue obligations, which is to be commended. This is a humanitarian obligation that should be maintained.

"However, a naval mission cannot disrupt the business model of people smuggling, and in this sense it is failing. The smuggling networks operate from Libya, and they extend through Africa. Without support from a stable Libyan Government, the operation is unable to gather the intelligence it needs or tackle the smugglers onshore.

"While there are plans for further phases of the mission which would see Operation Sophia acting in Libyan territorial waters and onshore, we are not confident that the new Libyan Government of National Accord will be in a position to work closely with the EU and its Member States any time soon.

"And when it comes to disrupting the smugglers' business model, the report finds that the destruction of vessels has so far been insignificant to the scale of the smuggling industry, and we have heard that the smugglers are simply changing their tactics in response. By the time the boats are in the open sea, the smugglers are no longer on board, and so only low level targets have been arrested."

Further information

Image: European External Action Service