BERLIN — The European Union's patrol mission in the Mediterranean saved 83% fewer people between January and July this year than it did in the same period in 2017, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
The figures were obtained from a confidential EU report, and via statistics from the German government requested by a high-ranking politician who shared them with BuzzFeed News.
It is not possible to reveal the exact number of people saved in the first seven months of 2018 compared to the previous year; however, according to separate statistics from the Organization for Migration, so far this year 1,500 people drowned in the Mediterranean or are considered missing.
The figures obtained from the German federal government were provided to BuzzFeed News by Ulrich Lechte, a member of the Free Democratic Party, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag.
He requested statistics on the rescue rate of the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean — Operation Sophia, which is named after a Somali girl who was born on a German navy ship in 2015.
The statistics showed that German Federal Armed Forces participating in the EU-wide Operation Sophia did not rescue a single person in June, despite at least 629 people drowning that month. In fact, the only month the German armed forces carried out any rescues at all in 2018 was during the month of April.
Rescues carried out by the German units of Operation Sophia in 2018:
In total, 64,000 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean in 2018 so far, according to the UN Refugee Agency, compared to over 170,000 in all of 2017.
Operation Sophia is officially a reconnaissance mission intended to boost patrols of the EU's nautical borders, and is not intended to be a rescue or humanitarian mission. But international law says that ships are bound to save migrants they find in the Mediterranean.
Even as the number of rescues has declined and the number of migrant deaths in June and July 2018 increased compared to the three preceding years, NGOs focused on saving migrants adrift at sea have found their efforts to rescue people made increasingly difficult. In June, one ship carrying 600 people was refused permission to dock in Italy. The rescued migrants eventually docked in Spain.
Sea-Watch, one of the NGOs conducting rescue missions, last week accused the Maltese government of endangering human lives by detaining rescue ships. According to Sea-Watch, at least 261 people in the Mediterranean lost their lives while one of its ships was prevented from leaving Malta during a technical stop.
In 2017, civilians working for NGOs rescued significantly more people than ships provided by the EU's member states or their militaries. Out of a total of 114,286 migrants rescued, 41% were saved by NGOs.
According to the statistics obtained by the FDP politician Lechte, since June 2017 the German Federal Armed Forces have been involved in rescuing 2,253 people, the vast majority of them last year. The German government uses the fact that refugee and migrant traffic declined in the first half of 2018 to justify Operation Sophia's sharp decline in rescues. In addition, the number of people rescued by Sophia units from distress depends "on different factors, such as the weather at sea," the German government said.
Complicating matters, the EU has attempted to let the Libyan government coordinate rescues of migrants. Many of the migrant boats that become stranded in the Mediterranean originate from Libya. Italy handed over the coordination of all rescue operations to Libya at the end of June.
However, the German Bundestag's Scientific Service concluded in August 2017 that even a proclaimed search and rescue zone does not relieve other ships of the obligation to aid boats in Libyan coastal waters in emergencies.
And EU ships are unlikely to take rescued migrants back to Libya under international rules, even if the rescue operation takes place in Libyan waters, because of the human rights situation in the country, a spokesperson for the European Commission said.
NGOs like Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée also doubt that the Libyan authorities are in a position to organize maritime rescue in the Mediterranean. At the end of July, an oil tanker in the Mediterranean reportedly brought rescued migrants back to Libya. "Libya is not a safe haven and this act could have violated international law," the UN Refugee Agency said about the incident.
When asked how close ships from Operation Sophia got to the Libyan coast, the German government gave no answer. The ship deployed by Germany to the EU mission had not violated Libyan territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles off the coast, said the federal government. Since June, the support ship Mosel has approached the coastline to a maximum of 13 nautical miles off the coast.
"Europe needs a common strategy to stabilize Libya permanently and to overcome the state of the failed state as soon as possible," Lechte told BuzzFeed News in response to the rescue numbers. "Germany should play a mediating role between Italy and France in order to come to a joint EU–Libya strategy.”
Lechte said that a country as rich in natural resources as Libya could “permanently become one of the anchor states of North Africa."
Commenting, Andrej Hunko, spokesperson for European affairs for the Left Party in the Bundestag, told BuzzFeed News that preventing people from drowning in the Mediterranean could not be left solely to aid agencies alone.
"The flow of refugees cannot be prevented by deterrence; the people in distress must instead look for new, riskier routes or means of transport,” he said. “More deaths are the result."
This isn't the first time that Sophia's success rate has come under fire. A report by the UK Parliament in May 2016 concluded that the EU mission Sophia was a complete failure. For example, the destruction of the boats found by Sophia's patrols led to refugees attempting the crossing on cheap and inappropriate inflatable boats, which make the journey even more dangerous. Another report from the UK House of Lords in July 2017 concluded that Sophia had missed its target of smugglers.
This post was translated from German.