International rights advocates criticised the European Union for abdicating humanitarian responsibilities after the bloc agreed to withdraw ships patrolling the Mediterranean for migrants attempting the perilous voyage.
After much wrangling, the EU agreed this week to extend its Mediterranean naval mission Operation Sophia for six months beyond the end of March – but only for air patrols and training of the Libyan coast guard.
“This is an outrageous abdication of EU governments’ responsibilities,” said Amnesty International.
“This shameful decision has nothing to do with the needs of people risking their lives at sea, but everything to do with the inability of European governments to agree on a way to share responsibility for them,” it said in a statement.
The human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, a European watchdog bigger than the EU, called on the bloc to step up sea rescues. Group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said the EU move was “irresponsible and reckless”.
EU states have been at loggerheads over migration since a spike in Mediterranean arrivals caught the bloc by surprise in 2015, stretching social and security services and fuelling support for far-right, nationalist and populist groups.
Maritime arrivals have fallen from more than a million in the peak year to about 140,000 people last year, according to UN data. Political tensions around migration run high in the EU, especially ahead of European Parliament election in May.
Italy, under the influence of anti-immigration hard-line deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, moved to shut Italian ports for people rescued by Sophia ships, demanding other EU states host new arrivals.
Rome threatened to pull the plug on the operation in the Mediterranean, where the United Nations says nearly 2,300 people died last year trying to reach Europe.
None wanted to, from major economies like Germany and France which already host many people who reached Europe from the Middle East and Africa since 2015, to nationalists ruling in the post-communist east Europe averse to Muslims.
The Italian coast guard’s website says the last time Sophia ships rescued people in the Mediterranean was last July.
Berlin and others want to continue the mission to fight smugglers. The awkward compromise this week is another step in the EU’s increasingly restrictive approach to migration.
“The EU considers it acceptable to let people die at sea as a deterrent for migration,” the MSF said in a statement.
From now, EU air patrols would report emergencies to the Libyan coast guard, which can turn the people back to the country where rights abuses are rife.
A spokeswoman for the EU’s executive European Commission acknowledged the diminished mission would have a smaller role in saving lives: “Without naval assets, Operation Sophia will not be able to effectively implement its mandate,” Maja Kocijancic told a news briefing.
The EU has funded UN agencies to improve conditions in Libyan migrant camps gripped by lawlessness since the 2011 the ousting of veteran ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
UN aid agencies decry abuse of human rights in the camps such as rape, lack of medical care and forced labour.
They sound the alarm at refugees and migrants sent back to Libya in violation of international humanitarian law, which forbids returning people to where their lives are at risk.