Germany seeks extension of EU's migrant deterrent sea operation

BERLIN/ROME (Reuters) - Germany said on Wednesday it was pushing for a solution to disputes over the distribution of migrants rescued at sea so Europe’s naval security mission can continue beyond March.

FILE PHOTO: Migrants are seen on board a fiberglass boat in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan Coast, August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane/File Photo

The European Union launched “Operation Sophia” in 2015 to counter migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean and reduce arrivals. But its future is uncertain given Italy’s insistence that those rescued be distributed among EU countries instead of being brought mostly to Italian ports.

With management of the migrant crisis damaging unity in the 28-nation bloc, the EU in December extended the Rome-based mission by three months to give time for a solution.

But EU sources say that will be tough.

“We must find a solution at the European level that extends beyond March 31,” said German government spokeswoman Martina Fietz.

By strengthening the coastguard of Libya, from where most migrants have in recent years attempted the perilous journey to Europe, the operation has pared arrivals from more than a million in 2015 to a tenth of that in 2018.

Despite that, Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has pushed to change the mission’s mandate, which dictates that people saved at sea must be delivered to the closest and safest ports, in most cases Italy.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said the German navy had rescued a total of 22,000 migrants at sea since 2015, but had recently been sidelined by Italian commanders.

“For three quarters of a year, the Italian command has been sending our navy to the most remote areas of the Mediterranean where there are no smuggling routes and no migrant flows so that the navy has not had any sensible role for months,” she said.

Berlin this week decided not to replace its ship the Augsburg when its tour ends on Feb. 6, although it said another vessel would be standing by in the North Sea if needed.

According to Italian defence ministry figures, Operation Sophia had rescued only 106 migrants in the past seven months, while Libya’s coast guard has picked up 13,000 in the same period.

Salvini told reporters Italy would continue to support the mission until March 31 while continuing to insist on new rules ensuring migrants also go to other states.

“It’s not Italy that is leaving the Sophia mission,” he said, in an apparent reference to Germany’s decision not to replace the Augsburg in the Mediterranean for now.

In Brussels, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s Commissioner for Migration, said he believed the operation was valuable and should continue, though its fate was largely in Italy’s hands.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Steve Scherer in Rome; Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Thomas Seythal and Andrew Cawthorne