The European Union agreed yesterday (23 May) to broaden the mandate of its naval mission to combat refugee smuggling off Libya by agreeing to train the Libyan coast guard and navy.
Foreign ministers from the 28 EU countries who met in Brussels also gave the thumbs up to extending Operation Sophia for an additional year. is due to expire in July.
“We agreed today to extend the mandate of the operation by one year,” EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini told a press conference after the meeting.
“We agreed to add two further tasks of the operation, namely capacity building and training of the Libyan coast guard,” Mogherini said.
Mogherini said the EU had received a letter asking for training the coast guard and navy from Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads Libya’s new internationally backed unity government.
“We will follow up this request very quickly,” she added.
The foreign ministers agreed the operation will contribute to implementing a UN arms embargo under a new resolution being drafted at the UN Security Council, according to published conclusions of the meeting.
On 13 May, a British parliamentary report said operation Sophia was “failing” and had only succeeded in forcing smugglers to change tactics.
The chaos in the North African country since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011 has been exploited by people traffickers, with thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe from Libya just 300 kilometres (180 miles) from Italy.
The unity government has raised hopes order can be re-established.
At the end of March, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian estimated that around 800,000 refugees were waiting to head for Europe from Libya.
Italian vessels have helped rescue more than 2,600 refugees from boats trying to reach Europe from North Africa in the last 24 hours, the coastguard said yesterday, indicating that numbers are rising as the weather warms up.
The EU naval operation is currently limited to international waters but the original plan was for it to extend into Libyan territorial waters to tackle people smugglers at source, by force if necessary.
This however was also conditional on a formal request from an accepted Libyan central government.