BERLIN — The European Union fears that more than 300,000 people could flee across the Mediterranean Sea in a "humanitarian disaster" if the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate, according to a new internal report.
That prediction was made in the latest semiannual report from Operation Sophia, the EU's military mission aimed at halting people from being smuggled across the sea into Europe. But, according to the report, which was obtained by BuzzFeed News, the mission is drastically unprepared for such an event.
The situation in Libya has deteriorated over recent months as the fighting between rival factions for control of the country led to 53 people dying when a detention center was hit in an airstrike last month. The odds of people making the dangerous trek to Europe has increased, Sophia noted in the report, dated July 9. The report cites the International Organization for Migration in its estimate that "around 325,000 people could take to the sea if conditions in Libya compelled them to do so."
While fewer people have crossed the sea since the peak of the crisis, when more than 3,800 people are estimated to have died during the journey, the route between Libya and Italy remains deadly. An estimated 2,262 people died on the trip in 2018.
The Sophia report also predicted that while the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard were still operational, the conflict could force them to focus more on internal security than stopping smuggling. "If this were to occur, it is likely that handling these threats would outstrip [the Libyans'] capacity and an immediate intervention by the European Community would be required off the coast," the report continues.
That might be easier said than done. The EU decided in April 2016 to equip and train Libyan Coast Guard units rather than continue to fund its own rescue missions. A BuzzFeed News report found a huge drop in the number of rescues that Sophia conducted last year despite the constantly high number of drownings.
According to the latest Sophia report, the plan to turn over operations to the Libyans has found only moderate success. During the period the report covers, from December 2018 through May 2019, the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy responded to only 50% of search and rescue cases along the Central Mediterranean migration route. A BuzzFeed News investigation during that time also found that the Libyans rarely answered the phone when called on the emergency lines meant to call in rescues.
And Libya has drawn scorn for its policy of either returning rescued people to dangerous conditions or detaining them in massive holding centers. Earlier this month, the UN-recognized government in Libya announced that it would be closing three of its largest immigrant detention centers, which have been condemned by the UN for their inhumane treatment of refugees.
But "three detention centers have not been closed yet," Tarik Argaz, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Libya, told BuzzFeed News in an email.
"Khoms detention center is currently empty after UNHCR evacuated the last 29 refugees that were detained inside, and the estimated number of refugees and migrants detained in the other two is around 450 persons," Argaz wrote.
Complicating matters is Sophia's lack of ships: Since April, the mission has been forced to operate without any surface naval assets. That's fine, the report said, provided that the EU's members provide more in the near future, the Libyans continue to patrol their waters effectively, and that there are no sudden surges in immigration. At present, though, none of those conditions seem likely.
A spokesperson for the European Commission told BuzzFeed News that it was "concerned that without Sophia’s naval assets, we may not be able to react swiftly if the situation at sea deteriorates, and we see a risk for increased activity by the smugglers as a consequence of the limited ability of the Operation to act."
Meanwhile, the mission has also been tasked with "implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya." That hasn't been going so well, though, as the lack of ships has made a hard task even harder, even with the use of aerial assets to try to spot traffickers.
Therefore, according to the report, Sophia has called on EU member states to designate ships that will "enable a possible EU maritime response" within 14 days. The EU Commission declined to comment when asked how the request is proceeding, instead referring BuzzFeed News to individual members.
But the clock is ticking: The current mandate for Sophia only runs until September, at which point EU member states will have to either extend it or wrap the whole mission up, no matter what the situation is on the ground in Libya at the time.