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

    A new agreement on the EU's Operation Sophia was hammered out after Italy, where anti-migrant sentiment is rising, said it would no longer receive those rescued at sea. | Photo: Reuters

Published 27 March 2019

As racism rises across Europe, Italy was the first country to effectively put an end to rescue operations through Sophia a year ago.

The European Union (EU) announced Wednesday it will suspend ship patrols that have rescued tens of thousands of migrants since 2015 in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy, under the pressure of far-right-led Rome.

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Although EU diplomats agreed that the operation would be officially extended six months beyond its March 31 expiry date, it would no longer deploy ships, relying instead on air missions and coordination with Libya.

"Member states have decided to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia for six months with a temporary suspension of its naval assets while member states continue working on a solution related to disembarkation," an EU official said in a statement.

From now on, EU air patrols would only 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 on Wednesday acknowledged the diminished mission would play a much smaller role in saving lives: "It's clear that without naval assets, Operation Sophia will not be able to effectively implement its mandate," EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Maja Kocijancic told a news briefing.

U.N. aid agencies have long decried the abuse of human rights in the camps such as rape, lack of medical care and forced labor.

They sounded the alarm after hearing the plans to deport refugees and migrants to Libya in violation of international humanitarian law, which forbids returning people to where their lives are at risk.

Human rights groups have criticized the measure and urged the EU to not outsource the problem to Tripoli.

"This is an outrageous abdication of EU governments' responsibilities," said Amnesty International.

"This shameful decision has nothing to do with the needs of people who risk 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."

One year ago, Rome had already blocked non-government organizations from disembarking migrants rescued at sea in Italian ports and criminalized activists who would attempt to provide support to migrants and asylum seekers.

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