Operation Sophia: mission impossible in the Mediterranean

Cesare Abbate
Warship “Giuseppe Garibaldi”

EU uses warships against smuggling networks that put fragile rubber boats on the Mediterranean. But on the boats are only the desperate. The smugglers are on shore. 

The small boat is burning. A little while ago it was full of people. They are now crowding the deck of a ship from the German rescue organization Sea-Watch. Soldiers from the warship looming in the distance have just set fire to the boat. The rescued and their helpers watch as the flames gradually devour the small vessel.

Europe protects its borders with warships assigned to sink tiny boats made of wood or filled with air. But does it work?

The sight of the burning boat provokes Nico Jankowski, speedboat driver on the rescue ship. “Seeing them come in the end of an operation to just burn the emptied migrant boats with disproportionate means is outrageous. Knowing that this is what EU tax money is spent on is simply unbelievable”, he says to his blogging colleague on Sea-Watch.

Record year 2016

Scenes like this have been common off the Libyan coast since October 7, 2015. That was when phase 2 of the EU Operation Sophia began. Operation Sophia is the Union’s military response to the flow of refugees and migrants who are coming through one of the few remaining openings in Europe’s closed borders: The central Mediterranean between Libya and Italy.

The statistics of the UN High commissioner for refugees stated, on December 20, that 179,475 people have made it alive across this stretch in 2016, thanks to rescue operations. That is a new record; in 2015 the figure was around 150,000 and the year before approximately 170,000. But another record was also set: Never before have so many disappeared in the waves.

Warships from Operation Sophia are patrolling the sea between Italy and Libya to end the traffic. But this route has only become busier since the crossing from Turkey to Greek islands was turned into a dead end street with the EU-Turkey agreement from March 20, 2016.

The migrants aren’t the targets, stressed  Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative of foreign affairs and security, when she launched the operation. “The targets are those who are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths. It is part of our efforts to save lives”.

This was the status of Operation Sophia by December 12, 2016: 358 boats destroyed, mostly inflatables. 101 suspected traffickers handed over to Italian police. “I am very confident in the results we have achieved and very pleased with Europe’s efforts in this operation”, says Rear Admiral Giuseppe Berutti Bergotto.
It is November,  and the force commander of Operation Sophia is standing steady on the huge deck of the aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Today Garibaldi is peacefully docked in a rainy Naples. The Italian colours hang limply along a pole on the ship side; a higher positioned EU flag is getting some assistance from a calm air. “Beware of rotors and jet blast” reads a warning in capital letters by the runway. Right now the deck is empty, save from a parked helicopter.

Garibaldi is not designed to be lying in a harbour. This pride of the Italian Navy has surveillance systems, radar, radio and satellite communications to operate in war. It has sailed on many seas and contributed in military operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The aircraft carrier knows its way to Libya, too. In 2011 some of the fighters that went to bomb the government forces of Muammar Gaddafi, departed from this floating airstrip. Italian aircraft dropped a total of 710 targeted bombs and missiles over Libya, 122 more than Norwegian F-16 aircraft, which were also at the forefront.

Shooting sparrows with cannons

Five years on, Libya is a failed state. A unity government recognized by the UN has been in place since December 2015. But the country is divided into parcels that are under the control of different militias. Human smuggling is a thriving and quite undisturbed multimillion-euro business that is deeply entangled with the local economy.

And Garibaldi is the flagship of Operation Sophia, which has as its purpose to contribute to the destruction of that business. As of November, Garibaldi had seven other ships in its wake. Seven aircraft and helicopters were at its disposal.
The equipment does not fit the assignment, and this is probably a waste of resources, believes Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the United Kingdom. He was one of the expert witnesses when the British House of Lords arranged a hearing on Operation Sophia in March 2016. – A lot of these vessels cost upwards of £500 million apiece. In some cases the aircraft are specialised in hunting nuclear submarines in the north Atlantic, and we are currently using them to look for small rubber dinghies off the Libyan coast, he said.

Operation Sophia is named after a baby that was born on board a German frigate in the autumn of 2015 – according to Federica Mogherini to “honour the lives of the people we save, the lives of people we want to protect, and to pass a message to the world that fighting the traffickers and criminal networks is a way to protect human life”.

“It is a great choice of name”, says Rear Admiral Berutti Bergotto.
“Even if it sounds as if you are a rescue operation?”
“We are not. But like everyone at sea, when it is necessary to save lives, we are the first. We do our best, as everyone else.”

The world’s most expensive rescue

By mid-December the military had rescued more than 30,200 lives.
“That is all very well”, says Ruben Neugebauer, spokesman for Sea-Watch. “But we have saved 20,000 with our one ship. Imagine what we could have done for that money.”

One vital contribution in the sea between Libya and Italy comes from the non-EU country Norway: The supply vessel Siem Pilot, hired by the Norwegian police authorities. For the cost of € 57,000 a day, it patrols a section of the Central Mediterranean as part of Operation Triton. This operation is run by the European border and coast guard, Frontex, of which the Schengen country Norway is a member.

As with Giuseppe Garibaldi and the warships of Operation Sophia, Siem Pilot is not assigned to the area for lifesaving purposes. Its mission is to patrol in international waters 70 nautical mil from Libyan shores.

But the obligation to help in distress is absolute. Much of the time on Siem Pilot is spent averting mass drownings much closer to land.

The huge deck has often been cramped with migrants that the Norwegian police, military, their Italian liaison colleagues and the crew have rescued. When needed, it takes a thousand people. From the start in the summer of 2015 until Chrismas 2016, Siem Pilot brought 28.598 people to safety.

The experiences make deep impressions on all those involved. “This is murder”, says Force Commander Pål Erik Teigen about the business that is about chasing people d

own to the beach in the middle of the night, claim notes of 1,200 to 1,500 euros from each and push them out to sea. “This dinghy was so bad that you would not believe it. It was not made for the sea. It was loaded with 140 passengers, and by 20 nautical miles the air went out of it”, he says of a rescue in November. Only 29 people survived.

The smugglers mostly use inflatables now. The reason is that Operation Sophia forced them to amend the business model, said the British Lieutenant-General Wolfgang Wosolsobe, also at the hearing in London. When the EU military began burning boats, smugglers turned to much cheaper and much more dangerous inflatables, bought in bulk from China, to avert losses, he said.

Financial losses.

The loss of life just got bigger.

Small fish

Siem Pilot also has more typical police tasks. When the ship approaches a crowded dinghy, people with binoculars and cameras watch from  the bridge to try and interpret the situation on board. “We look for people who are in authority. Who, for instance, catches the rope? As we approach, the satellite phone that has been used to call the rescue coordination center in Rome is often thrown into the sea. The engine is often put in neutral. When we come, a little girl may be at the helm”, says Børre Sandbakk, who has worked with intelligence on board Siem Pilot.

“Persons of Interest”, POI, is the term for witnesses and suspects in Operation Triton. The operators are usually not in the rubber boats; they know how dangerous it is. But the one that holds a mobile phone and is seated on the least dangerous place on board, is nevertheless a POI.

“We don’t make any judgements. We only tell Italian police who they should interview. The guy with the phone has an explanation he can give – about who gave it to him”, says Sandbakk. Siem Pilot has handed over 160 POIs to Italian authorities.

Operation Sophia has identified 101 suspects. “They are people that will be replaced in 10 to 15 minutes”, said Peter Roberts when he testified in the British Parliament. “Considering the proportions, the figure is incredibly low”, he said in the hearing in March.

Prosecutor Salvatore Vella has his office on dry land in Sicily, in the court of Agrigento. He specializes in mafia cases. But also in the smuggling of migrants, a business that Europol believes had a turnover of between 3 and 6 billion Euros in 2015.

The Sicilian judiciary knows very well what mafia is; several of the Italian Interior Ministry’s most wanted and feared Cosa Nostra members hail from  Agrigento. But smuggling of migrants from Libya surpasses both Italian mafia and drug cartels by being even more profitable and safe, says Vella. As a rubber boat is pushed to the sea, the job is done. The smugglers have received their money. The customers are left to their fate.

Operation Sophia does not contribute in the fight against these criminals, according to Vella. “This military operation has not weakened these organizations”, he says.

The prosecutor himself desperately needs more money for his work. For instance to hire interpreters who can get migrants to tell what they know. “It is absolutely essential to have people who can build strong relationships with them. I must instead hire a girl from a coffee shop who is afraid to help the police”, says Vella.

Closed borders help criminals

It is useless to combat smugglers if you do not remove the reasons why people turn to them, claims the Guardian reporter Patrick Kingsley. He also testified in parliament in London – after visiting 20 countries along the migration routes through the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. On the way he met smugglers in the junctions of Agadez, Tripoli and Zuwara. And many migrants.

Arrangements for safe and legal access for refugees to Europe must be established, and they must be schemes that seem realistic to people, says Kingsley. Many refugees who have opted for legal channels of resettlement through the UNHCR in recent years, have completely lost hope as nothing has happened with their applications. “Call again next year”, is a common message.

That is why criminals become a solution, according to Kingsley. Many migrants are not even very afraid of the boat trip, as they have survived torture and other extreme assaults on the road north from Eritrea and Sudan through the Sahara to the Libyan coast, said the journalist at the hearing. – So the idea that we can deter them is, in my view, pointless and impractical, not to mention immoral.

Bombed the Coast Guard

Norwegians and Italians scout for suspicious traffic in the Mediterranean from their supply vessels and warships. They are not naive. They know that they alone cannot combat smuggling of humans.

But the EU has a plan: To pursue the networks on shore in Libya.

The first step is to train the Libyan coastguard. 78 Libyans have had training with European navy in 2016. This is a way to build good relations to the government in Tripoli, explains Captain Antonello de Renzis Sonnino, spokesman for Operation Sophia. In turn, he hopes for an invitation to pursue smugglers in Libyan territorial waters – and on land.

“We have amphibious vessels that can go ashore. But we must work together with the Libyans, so we need an invitation first”, explains de Renzis Sonnino.

That invitation may not be coming soon. Chaos continued after NATO fighter planes helped rebels that eventually toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Today the government of national unity controls only parts of the country.

The Libyan Coast Guard is also not what it used to be. It doesn’t have many boats, admits captain the Renzis Sonnino. “Most were destroyed in 2011. The first thing we did was to halt Libya’s opportunities to operate at sea.”

British parliamentarians passed a crushing judgement on Operation Sophia: It is a mission impossible. It is pointless to insert warships to approach crime victims when the perpetrators are on shore. The networks must be pursued on land. But if the operation is to succeed, Libya must have a government which is also recognised at home.

For saving lives, there are far more effective ways. Like the old, converted trawler that is the rescue vessel of Sea-Watch.

“Imagine what we could have done with that money”, says Ruben Neugebauer.

This is the English translation of an Investigate Europe report that was written by our Norwegian member Ingeborg Eliassen and  published simultaneously in Norway (Aftenbladet and Bergens Tidende) and Portugal  (in Publico with contribution by Paulo Pena) on 31 December 2016.