Media reports that Greece has offered its ports to refugees and migrants rescued by the EU's new naval mission. Archive photo: Moria, Greece

New naval mission in the Central Mediterranean to be launched on 1 April 2020

A final agreement on a new naval mission in the Central Mediterranean was reached on 26 March 2020 between EU Member States. The new mission has gone to great lengths to avoid becoming a “pull factor”. The EU and Member States must get their priorities right. When saving lives becomes something to avoid, it is time to take a different path.


By early March this year the reported loss of lives in the Mediterranean Sea reached and estimated 20,000 since 2014. The route from Libya is among the most perilous, underlining the pressing need for a reinforcement of search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean. However, since March last year EU naval assets have been suspended and the operation has only included aerial surveillance. NGO search and rescue operations have also been consistently blocked, criminalised, and are currently impacted by the Coronavirus restrictions. Instead, technical and financial support has been provided to the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return refugees and migrants fleeing arbitrary detention, violence and armed conflict.

With the current mission – Operation Sophia – coming to the end of its mandate, an agreement was reached on 26 March 2020 between EU Member States to launch a new naval mission in the Central Mediterranean.

The new mission is primarily aimed at enforcing the Libya arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council, but disagreement over how to share responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers rescued by the mission, and the possibility of creating a “pull factor” by reinstating naval presence in the Central Mediterranean, has been dividing Member States.

To facilitate a political agreement in February, the mission was carefully designed not to save lives. Consequently it will focus the deployment on the Eastern part of the Libyan coast where the arms are reportedly coming from, and from where only few refugees and migrants depart. Should the mission appear to be a pull factor, ships can shift their deployment further East or North or the deployment be reassessed altogether. The mission will also continue its support to and reliance on the Libyan Coast Guard, despite its alleged violations of human rights and explicitly against the recommendation of the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

The final contention point between Member States was a continued disagreement on disembarkation arrangements. Media reports however, that in a surprising bid to broker the deal, Greece offered its ports to rescued refugees and migrants under the condition that those rescued will be relocated to other Member States – apparently through a voluntary relocation scheme, and harbour and transfer costs compensated by EU funds. The new mission will start operating on 1 April 2020.

While an active role of the EU in the monitoring of the Libya arms embargo is welcome and needed - although critics point to the limited foreseen effect of a mission only operating at sea, the EU and Member States must get their priorities rights. When saving lives becomes something to avoid, it is time to take a different path. Under International Maritime Law, States are obliged to establish and operate search and rescue where required and have a duty to render assistance to those in distress at sea, and to disembark at the closest safe harbour.

The EU and Member States must make saving lives a policy priority, and immediately allow NGO search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean – criminalising the act of saving lives and pushing people in search of safety back to war-torn Libya undermines European values. The Greek offer to open its ports is positive. A voluntary relocation scheme will however, require sufficient and continued commitments by EU Member States. The EU must work towards predictable disembarkation arrangements and a permanent and sustainable responsibility-sharing mechanism to effectively support Member States at the EU’s external borders experiencing the highest number of arrivals.