I welcome the opportunity to address the deployment of the Naval Service to Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean. Following a Government decision, the Dáil today approved Defence Forces participation in the UN-mandated EU naval mission, Operation Sophia. The Dáil decision completes the final part of the triple lock procedure, as Members are aware. Earlier this year, following discussions with the Defence Forces general staff, I asked the Deputy Chief of Staff, General Brennan, and the Naval Service Flag Officer, Hugh Tully, to visit the Operation Sophia headquarters to meet with its commanding officer and report back to me. The subsequent advice and recommendation I received from the Defence Forces general staff was that Ireland should participate in Operation Sophia. The mission operates in the southern central Mediterranean. The Government approved participation on Tuesday and the required Dáil mandate to participate in this UN mandated mission was given this afternoon. The Government decision is for the Naval Service to transfer to Operation Sophia at an appropriate juncture and the preparatory work for this to take place, which will take place over the coming months, can only be commenced now that the triple lock procedure has been completed. The Government decision mandates Ireland’s participation in the operation until December this year.
The EU naval operation against human smugglers and traffickers in the southern central Mediterranean was launched as a common security and defence mission in June 2015. In October 2015, the mission was given the name Operation Sophia. The mission is named after a baby born to a Somali refugee on board a rescue vessel and is intended to be a way of honouring the lives of the many people being saved and protected in this way. It is also intended to send a message to the world that, by fighting smugglers and criminal networks in this way, we are protecting human life. Operation Sophia’s mission is to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers. The objectives of the operation are not only to disrupt the activities of smugglers and traffickers but also to prevent further loss of life at sea and to reduce the suffering and exploitation of migrants by countering and challenging the criminal organisations engaged in such activities. Together with other EU member states, Ireland must continue to play its part in managing the increasing numbers of migrants arriving via the central Mediterranean route. The UN migration agency has reported that 95,768 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea in the first six months of 2017, almost 85% of whom arrived in Italy. There have been 2,169 deaths recorded in this period. Irregular migration into Europe on the central Mediterranean route increased by 18% in 2016 and by a further 19% in the first six months of 2017 compared to 2016. Libya is the main country of departure for these migrants. The migratory flows from Libya into Italy and the continuing loss of life in the Mediterranean is an issue of serious concern. There is a need for solidarity among EU member states in addressing these issues and Ireland must play its part.
Operation Sophia is one element of a comprehensive approach to addressing the migrant crisis. The mission also provides capacity building and training to the Libyan coastguard and navy and contributes to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2292, which imposes an arms embargo on Libya in an effort to prevent the flow of illicit arms and related material into that country. In relation to disrupting people smuggling and trafficking operations in the Mediterranean, Operation Sophia is being implemented in a number of phases. The first phase, to support the detection and monitoring of migration networks through information gathering and patrolling in accordance with international law, is complete.
The mission is currently at phase 2, part (i), and involves the targeting, seizure and diversion of the vessels of human smugglers and traffickers on the high seas. There are no proposals currently to move to the next phase, phase 2, part (ii). Moving to this phase, which relates to operating within Libyan territorial waters, requires a further UN Security Council resolution and-or the consent of the coastal state. Similarly, there are no proposals to move to the third phase which would involve taking all necessary measures against vessels including disposal or rendering them inoperable. Ireland will only participate in those aspects of Operation Sophia which are authorised in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, and Ireland will declare caveats to this effect should the Dáil approve this motion.
It is understandable that some have concerns about participating in this mission. I am aware of the concerns raised in a report by the United Kingdom House of Lords which was published yesterday which questioned the effectiveness to date of the Operation Sophia 3 mission. However, a recent EU strategic review of Operation Sophia determined that the prominence of Operation Sophia on the high seas off Libya continues to hamper the human smugglers’ business model and is having a deterrent effect in supporting the arms embargo.
It is important to note that this mission is only one part of the EU response to addressing the causes and not just the symptoms of the crisis. Irish troops are contributing to the EU’s efforts as part of EUTM Mali. The EU also has a training mission in Somalia and EUFOR Chad, where we led and had troops previously. All of these are CSDP missions with a UN mandate. In May 2015, Ireland provided €1 million to the International Committee of the Red Cross to meet urgent humanitarian needs in Libya. Ireland also supports the humanitarian response in Libya through contributions to the European Commission and to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund. Assistance is being provided to internally displaced persons, returnees and other vulnerable groups. In total, the European Commission has allocated almost €20 million in humanitarian aid to Libya since the current crisis started in mid-2014.
One of the root causes of the conflict in the region is the Syrian civil war. Since the Syria crisis began in 2012 Ireland has provided over €76 million in humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict. Our funding supports those inside Syria and refugees across the region, including Lebanon and Jordan. We have also provided €33.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Somalia since 2012.
I want to restate that Ireland is fully supportive of the comprehensive EU approach to the migration crisis including the current deployment and Operation Sophia. Ireland contributes to its costs through the financing structures of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. This is the third year of our participation in Operation Pontus under which an Irish naval vessel has been deployed to the Mediterranean to undertake humanitarian search and rescue tasks as part of a bilateral arrangement with the Italian authorities. Overall, over 16,800 migrants have been rescued since Irish Naval Service vessels deployed in the Mediterranean, demonstrating clearly the value of Ireland’s response to the migration crisis.
The Government and I believe that Irish people are extremely proud of the Naval Service contribution to this mission. Transferring to Operation Sophia will result in the redeployment of Irish Naval Service vessels from primarily humanitarian search and rescue operations to primarily security and interception operations. The Naval Service vessel will, however, continue to be available to respond to requests from the Italian maritime rescue co-ordination centre or other relevant authority, in terms of any vessels at risk in its area of operation. While the focus of Operation Sophia is primarily on security and interception operations, more than 36,600 persons have been rescued by vessels operating under this mission since October 2015.
I should also state that it is the duty of all maritime ships, including naval vessels, to render assistance to other vessels in distress in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In addition to the continued presence of Operation Sophia assets in the region, a daily average of more than 50 merchant vessels and up to ten non-governmental organisations are operating in the central Mediterranean and are actively involved in search and rescue activities. The processing of migrants in accordance with international law and respect for human rights is a fundamental aspect of Operation Sophia. Accordingly, very close working arrangements with UN Higher Commissioner for Refugees and International Organisation of Migration have been put in place both in planning, training and conduct of the operation.
There are specific benefits for Ireland in joining Operation Sophia. We will form part of a broader multilateral operation in which 25 other member states are participating. The Naval Service will have access to air support and intelligence which it did not have previously and this will enhance the security of deployed personnel and assets. Ireland will be making a contribution to addressing some of the root causes of migration and human trafficking. There will be a more proactive role for the Naval Service in that it will be authorised to seize the boats of smugglers on the high seas and destroy them so they cannot be used again in such a way.
The sharing of intelligence with other EU naval forces will also be an important aspect of the mission and will assist in addressing the complex issue of illegal migration. Participation in Operation Sophia will help to build Naval Service professional capacity across a range of skills and enhance capability in interoperability with other international naval forces. Ireland has a long-standing commitment to peacekeeping and conflict resolution worldwide. Our Defence Forces have made a huge contribution to Ireland’s image abroad through their professionalism and competence in the many missions that they have been involved in since joining the United Nations in 1955. Currently, over 650 members of the Defence Forces are serving overseas in various parts of the world, including 71 Naval Service personnel.
Threats to international peace and security are complex, multidimensional, interrelated and transnational in nature. The ever-changing complex and intertwined nature of threats to our citizens, individual states and to international peace and security must be acknowledged. No country acting alone can address such challenges. The best approach for Ireland continues to be to ensure that the countries on the borders of the EU and beyond the European neighbourhood are stable, secure and prosperous. Our membership of the European Union and the United Nations allows Ireland to deepen and sustain democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights through, among other things, participation in overseas peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, which in turn will make Ireland more safe and secure. Naval Service vessels will now be redeployed to support EU efforts to disrupt the practices of those illegal and criminal elements engaged in people trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable populations.
From an operational and logistical perspective, the Government has directed that the timing of the transfer of Naval Service operations in the Mediterranean to Operation Sophia will take place at an appropriate juncture which I, as Minister of State with special responsibility for defence, will decide, based on the advice of the Department and Defence Forces.
Those criminal networks engaged in the exploitation of migrants must be dismantled. It is not acceptable that so many lives are being lost and so many vulnerable people exploited year after year. By participating in Operation Sophia, Ireland will be joining a mission that has 25 EU member states as contributors and naval vessels from six other member states - Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Belgium and the UK - addressing some of the root causes of migration and human trafficking.