EU to scale down maritime migrant missions

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The European Union will cease maritime patrols that have rescued thousands of migrants making the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing from North Africa to Europe, but will extend air missions, two diplomats.

A new agreement on the EU Operation Sophia was hammered out after Italy, where anti-migrant sentiment is rising, said it would no longer take those rescued at sea.

Operation Sophia’s mandate was due to expire on Sunday but should now continue for six more months with the same aim of deterring people smugglers in the Mediterranean. It will no longer deploy ships and rely on air patrols and closer co-ordination with Libya, the diplomats said.

“It is awkward, but this was the only way forward given Italy’s position, because nobody wanted the Sophia mission completely shut down,” one EU diplomat said.

A second diplomat confirmed a deal was reached and said it must be endorsed by all EU governments.

The tentative deal could weaken Operation Sophia’s role in saving lives in the sea where nearly 2,300 people drowned last year, according to United Nations figures.

From the more than a million refugees and migrants who made it to the bloc during a 2015 crisis, sea arrivals dropped to 141,500 people in 2018, according to the United Nations.

Italian deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said his country would no longer be the main disembarkation point for people crossing the Mediterranean by boat and rescued by Operation Sophia patrol ships.

Rome wants other countries to open up their ports, but no other EU states came forward. Diplomats said countries including Spain, France and Germany were not willing to host more rescued people – most of who are fleeing wars and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

EU governments want the mission to continue because they felt it was effective in dissuading smugglers.

The compromise discussion in Brussels did not discuss military aspects of air patrols. But the new arrangement will involve more training of the coast guard in Libya, where lawlessness allows smugglers to openly operate.

It would be in line with EU policy of being increasingly restrictive on Mediterranean immigration since the surge in 2015 and discouraging people risking their lives to cross to Europe where governments do not want them.

The bloc has already curbed operations of EU aid groups in parts of the Mediterranean and moved own ships further north where fewer rescues take place.