I propose to take Questions Nos. 67, 73 and 74 together.
The EU Common Security and Defence Policy operation, EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, was launched in June 2015. It is part of the EU's broader action to provide a comprehensive response to the global migration and refugee crisis and to encourage a democratic, stable and prosperous Libya. It specifically seeks to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean by taking action against the criminal networks and disrupting the smugglers' business model. The mission is also providing capacity building and training to the Libyan coastguard and navy and contributing to the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 2240 and 2292. These resolutions also authorise the interception of vessels suspected of being used for illicit activities and impose an arms embargo on Libya in an effort to prevent the flow of illicit arms and related material into that country.
In July 2017, Government and Dáil approval was secured for the deployment of an Irish Naval Service vessel as part of Operation Sophia. The participation by LÉ Niamh in Operation Sophia represented the first involvement by the Naval Service in a multilateral security operation under a UN mandate.
In the course of an 11 week deployment in the Mediterranean in 2017, the LÉ Niamh rescued 613 migrants, assisting with a further 107 migrant rescues.
In February 2018, the Government approved a further Naval Service contribution to Operation Sophia for a period of approximately eight months. LÉ Samuel Beckett deployed from mid-April to mid-July and was replaced in the area of operations by LÉ James Joyce. LÉ James Joyce returned to Ireland on 27 October 2018. During 2018 LÉ Samuel Beckett rescued 106 migrants in total. LÉ James Joyce was not tasked by the Operation Sophia Force Commander or by the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre with search and rescue activities during its period of deployment.
The type of tasks assigned to Irish naval vessels depends on the Operation Sophia Force Commander and mission requirements at any point in time. In addition to search and rescue operations, Irish naval vessels undertake activities in support of the core task of the mission including gathering information on oil smuggling, patrols focusing on countering illegal arms trafficking, operations to intercept smugglers and people traffickers and monitoring the effectiveness of the Libyan navy and coastguard activity from a stand-off distance.
Operation Sophia has played a decisive role in improving the overall maritime security in the central Mediterranean. The latest information from the United Nation's migration agency, International Organisation for Migration, IOM, reports that as of 14 November 2018, the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea was 103,347. This figure is considerably lower than those at this time in 2017, 156,708, and 2016, 343,258. In addition, the operation has so far contributed to the apprehension of 151 suspected smugglers and traffickers, removed approximately 550 boats from criminal organisations availability, contributed to over 300 safety of life at sea events and rescued almost 45,000 migrants. While there is currently no Irish ship deployed to the operation, Defence Forces personnel continue to occupy two posts in the operational headquarters in Rome and two in the force headquarters at sea.
Ireland's participation in Operation Sophia in 2019 is currently being considered and a decision will be taken on the matter following a full review of 2018 deployments. Other factors to be taken into account include the ongoing situation in the Mediterranean and the overall EU response thereto, the demands on the Defence Forces both at home and abroad and available resources.