‘Mission impossible’ for Operation Sophia

Annegret Mathari – SDA

8 minute read

The EU's ambitious Operation Sophia naval initiative has been criticised as a political display rather than a genuine response to the people smuggling crisis in the Mediterranean.

GENEVA: Operation Sophia, the EU’s military operation in the central Mediterranean, rescued more than 30,000 people in 2016 on the migration route between Libya and Italy. 

“Sophia is operating brilliantly in rescuing people”, Nicola Pedde, Director of the Institute for Global Studies tells the Swiss news agency sda. 

The rescues take place mainly in the triangle between Lampedusa in the south of Italy and the western Libyan towns of Sabratha and Misrata.

But the naval mission is about more than just saving people. Operation Sophia, established by the EU Council in June 2015, was designed to thwart the business model of smugglers and provide supplementary search and rescue.

The flagship of the mission is the aircraft carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi. With surveillance systems, radar, radio, and satellite communications , it's designed to operate in war. 

In total, the operation has six vessels, three helicopters and three air assets. Twenty-five EU member states are participating.

After a period of intelligence gathering offshore on migration networks, the operation started in October 2015 to board, search, seize and divert smuggler’s vessels in international waters. This so called phase 2 was underwritten by resolution 2240 of the UN Security Council.

In June 2016 the EU member states extended the mandate of Operation Sophia until 27 July 2017 and added two tasks: the implementation of the UN arms embargo and the training of the Libyan coast guard. 

This began at the end of October 2016, following a request by the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) , in power since March 2016.

The number of refugees and migrants coming to Europe over the central Mediterranean route hasn't decreased. There were 180,000 arrivals in 2016, compared to 154,000 in 2015, and 4,581 deaths at sea.

Libya, a country with three competing governments, is in open armed conflict. Its formal economy is generally shrinking, there is high inflation along with an acute liquidity crises. 

Human smuggling from the coast of Libya is a multimillion dollar business estimated by the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC) to have been worth between $US255 million and $US323 million (229 - 290 euro)  in 2015.

“In 2015 the average Syrian was paying $US1,500 to $US2,000 for a boat crossing, and Africans would pay $US800 to $US1,300,” says Tuesday Reitano, Deputy Director of GITOC in Geneva. “Now there are no more Syrians going through Libya really and Africans are paying much less - $US200 to $US300 dollars.”

If the 180,000 people who came through Libya in 2016 paid $US300, the business would still be worth around $US54 million, she calculates.


The presence of the Sophia units with military patrols off Libya’s coastline had an unexpected and unwanted impact on the smuggler market.

While the operation didn’t necessarily create a "pull factor", it did make it cheaper and easier for smugglers to put people out to sea and made it a lot more dangerous for refugees and migrants, Reitano says, as smugglers resorted to the use of dinghies. 

“The problem with smuggling is, that the impact of restrictions is to always grow the market rather than to reduce it,” she says.

Operation Sophia forced smugglers to modify their business model, Austrian Lieutenant-General Wolfgang Wosolsobe, director-general of the European Military Staff, told a hearing organised by Britain’s House of Lords in March 2016.

The more expensive wooden or fibre-glass boats were no longer used, as they represented a “significant financial loss” when they were destroyed.

Operation Sophia Commander Enrico Credendino noted himself in a leaked review of the mission for the period from January to October 2016, published by statewatch.org, that the restrictions “made smugglers more careless about rubber boats”. “The new modus operandi entails a skiff towing a rubber boat without engine, which is then left adrift,” he wrote.

Reitano tells sda it's now widely acknowledged that there isn’t a credible way to intervene exclusively at sea without understanding the land-based business model. 

"Operation Sophia is more a political display than a genuine response,” she says.

EU Naval Operation Sophia: the facts and figures


There are also critics who say that the Operation Sophia equipment is unsuited to the task. The vessels and aircraft are too sophisticated, says Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK and also an expert witness at the  House of Lords hearing.

Many of the vessels cost upwards of 500 million GBP (586 million euro) apiece, he says. And aircraft designed to hunt nuclear submarines in the north Atlantic are looking "for small rubber dinghies off the Libyan coast”. 

He describes this as a wasted resource and suggests that the EU should use much cheaper commercial vessels for the search and rescue elements of the mission. By comparison, the NGO Sea-Watch saved 20,000 people in the Mediterranean during 2016 with its two vessels.

The European Union Committee of the UK’s House of Lords published a critical report in May 2016, concluding that Operation Sophia was failing in its core mandate of disrupting smuggling networks. 

By the end of April 2017, Operation Sophia had handed over 109 suspected smugglers to the Italian police, apparently small players, and destroyed 422 boats.

Commander Credendino also said in the leaked report that he needed more accurate intelligence on weapons movements to implement the UN arms embargo effectively.

“The sea is not the main way on which weapons come in to Libya,” a representative of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), tells sda. “Weapons are also coming in by air and by land.”


The EU member states decided that Sophia should go into Libyan territorial waters and later onshore in its next phase, after obtaining the consent of the Libyan GNA of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.

“This is wishful thinking”, a Western diplomat in Geneva, familiar with the situation in Libya, tells sda, because Libyans would consider it a colonial act. And according to Reitano, Libyans are more concerned about oil smuggling. 

They say "we are seeing European tankers taking oil off our shore and nobody stops them".

In the meantime, Sophia is training the Libyan coast guard. Italy and other EU member states are also providing the coast guard with vessels to patrol in Libyan waters, according to Pedde of the Institute for Global Studies. 

But it raises another problem. Refugees and irregular migrants rescued by the Libyan coast guard are being transferred back to Libya – more than 10,000 in 2016 - where they are held in detention camps under well-documented horrific conditions.

To be rescued and “then returned to conditions that are so inhuman, can’t be acceptable,” UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore, said in an interactive dialogue on Libya in a March 2017 session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.


GITOC is also critical of the training of the Libyan coast guard. 

Operation Sophia’s presence and it’s training program is sending the wrong message to militias who have a law enforcement or border control function, investigative journalist and human smuggling expert Mark Micallef wrote in a report published by GITOC in March 2017.

According to Micallef, these groups may see money in making themselves attractive to EU-partners.

And a failure to understand “how human smuggling interfaces with the coast guard itself risks playing into the hands of the armed gangs, who are at the root of Libya’s present turmoil,” Micallef says.

But there is one success story. The western Libyan town of Zuwara that has smuggled people for two decades, has voluntarily relinquished this trade, according to GITOC. 

This happened after three shipwrecks off the town’s coast killed 650 people in August 2015. The town’s Amazigh (Berber) residents, an ethnic minority in North Africa, have long been frustrated that their name had become synonymous with smuggling. 

The tragedies were the last straw for many in Zuwara and provoked massive anti-smuggling protests.