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, as well as encouraging 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 Coast Guard and Navy while 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.
Training being provided to the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard as part of Operation Sophia aims to improve the security of Libyan territorial waters; to enhance the capability of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard in law enforcement at sea; and to improve their ability to perform search-and-rescue activities to save lives in Libyan territorial waters. Libyan Coast Guard training is a positive move towards capacity building by the EU mission. It is the fastest way to deliver effects in reducing irregular migrant flows and intercepting smuggler activity inside territorial waters.
In July 2017, Government and Dáil approval was secured for the deployment of a 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, the LÉ Niamh rescued 613 migrants, assisting with a further 107 migrant rescues.
In addition to search-and-rescue operations, the Irish vessel also undertook 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 Coast Guard activity from a stand-off distance. In February 2018, the Government approved a further Naval Service contribution to Operation Sophia and two naval vessels will deploy for approximately 30 weeks from mid-April to end-November.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
The Defence Forces have confirmed that Irish naval vessels have not observed or been prevented by the Libyan Coast Guard from going to the aid of migrants in distress in international waters.
The core task of contributing to disrupting the smugglers' business model involves identifying potential smugglers when on search-and-rescue operations and handing them over to the Italian authorities when disembarking the rescued persons. Irish Naval Service ships have not intercepted smugglers but have identified them when they are rescued and have handed them over to the Italian authorities. All rescued migrants are embarked in Italian ports.
Operation Sophia has so far contributed to the apprehension of 130 suspected smugglers and traffickers, removed approximately 520 boats from criminal organisations availability, contributed to almost 290 safety of life at sea events and rescued over 42,400 migrants.