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Operation Sophia saves lives but has not stopped people smuggling

12 July 2017

The EU External Affairs Sub-Committee today publishes a report on the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia. This report concludes that it has failed in its mission to disrupt the business of people smuggling in the central Mediterranean.


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.

In May 2016, the EU Committee published Operation Sophia, the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean: an impossible challenge (HTML).

Key findings

  • Operation Sophia has failed to achieve its objective of "contributing to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean".
  • An unintended consequence of Operation Sophia's destruction of smugglers' boats has been that they have adapted, sending migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels, resulting in more deaths at sea.
  • A unified government in Libya, able to provide security across the country, is a precondition for meaningful EU action against people smuggling networks onshore. Political and security conditions in Libya are unlikely to improve sufficiently to allow onshore operations by the EU any time soon. There is therefore little reason to renew the mandate of Operation Sophia, but the search and rescue work, which has saved the lives of many people, should continue, using more suitable vessels.
  • Operation Sophia vessels have rescued over 33,000 people since the inception of the mission.
  • The number of recorded casualties on the central Mediterranean route increased by around 42% in 2016. There have been 2,150 recorded deaths to date in 2017.

Chair's comments

Chair of the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee, Baroness Verma, said:

"People smuggling begins onshore, so a naval mission is the wrong tool for tackling this dangerous, inhumane and unscrupulous business. Once the boats have set sail, it is too late.

"Operation Sophia has failed to meet the objective of its mandate—to disrupt the business model of people smuggling. It should not be renewed. However it has been a humanitarian success, and it is critical that the EU's lifesaving search and rescue work continues, but using more suitable, non-military, vessels.

"Future UK and EU action should focus on tackling people smuggling in source and transit countries, and supporting sustainable economic development and good governance in these countries.

"Italy has found itself on the front line of a mass movement of people into Europe, and deserves credit for its efforts to respond."

Further information

Image : iStockphoto