The European Union is to end the maritime patrols that have saved thousands of refugees and migrants in the central Mediterranean, after the Italian populist government threatened to veto the entire operation.
Operation Sophia was put in place in 2015 to rescue migrants making the treacherous journey from North Africa after some 3,771 people died trying to reach Europe by boat.
The suspension of maritime patrols in the waters of the central Mediterranean will remain in force until September 30, but air patrols will be intensified. The mission will also continue to train the Libyan coastguard – as part of a controversial strategy which critics argue has resulted in thousands of migrants languishing in Libyan detention centers, where they face horrific abuses.
The future of the mission, which was due to expire on Sunday, is at the centre of a debate over which EU country should welcome people saved at sea..
Italy’s coalition government has refused to accept people on board search and rescue vessels since it came to power last June. The country’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has declared Italian waters closed to rescue boats, leaving a series of NGO ships and their passengers stranded at sea, in search of a port in which to dock.
The international humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has described the decision to end Operation Sophia as “irresponsible and reckless”.
“This shows once again that the EU considers it acceptable to let people die at sea as a deterrent to migration, instead of providing adequate search and rescue capabilities and on a landing system that prioritises saving lives and gives people a chance to seek asylum,” said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, MSF Humanitarian Affairs Adviser.