Why The EU Is Now Considering Strengthening Operation IRINI To Combat Human Trafficking Via Libya – OpEd


On March 31, 2020, the European Union (EU) launched a new Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) Operation in the Mediterranean called EUNAVFOR MED IRINI. This operation was established to enforce United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions on the arms embargo in Libya, replacing the previous operation, EUNAVFOR MED SOPHIA, which has since been closed. The main objective of EUNAVFOR MED IRINI is to ensure compliance with the UN arms embargo on Libya by utilizing aerial, satellite, and maritime assets.

Currently, there are discussions within the EU about the need for the military operations in the Mediterranean to focus more on combating human trafficking. The aim is for IRINI to prioritize the prevention of human trafficking and smuggling.

While EU’s military mission IRINI has been operating in international waters of the Mediterranean, with secondary missions of halting illicit exports of Libyan oil, training the Libyan coastguard, and interrupting human trafficking, it is suggested that border control should enhance the task of Operation IRINI by placing greater emphasis on combating human smuggling.

Operation IRINI conducts inspections of vessels suspected of transporting arms to and from Libya, as well as monitors violations through aerial and land routes. Additionally, it gathers information on illicit exports of petroleum products from Libya and contributes to disrupting networks involved in human smuggling and trafficking. The operation is also responsible for supporting the capacity building and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy. However, the implementation of these activities has been delayed due to political fragmentation in Libya. EUNAVFOR MED IRINI has been actively monitoring suspected flights, airports, ports, and conducting boarding and friendly approaches. Since its inception, it has provided several special reports to the UN panel of experts on Libya.

It is worth noting that Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI is funded through the European Peace Facility (EPF). The EPF is an off-budget instrument controlled by EU member states, providing financial resources to support various activities related to peace and security, including military operations, capacity building, and peacebuilding efforts. This funding mechanism allows the EU to respond swiftly and effectively to emerging crises and security challenges, ensuring that operations like EUNAVFOR MED IRINI have the necessary financial support to carry out their tasks effectively and contribute to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on Libya. Overall, the financing provided by the European Peace Facility demonstrates the EU’s commitment to preventing conflicts, building peace, and strengthening international security through operations such as EUNAVFOR MED IRINI.

The change would make IRINI’s purpose similar to that of the EU naval mission it replaced – Operation Sophia – which ended in March 2020 due to high political pressure resulting from its involvement in search and rescue (SAR) operations.

Operation Sophia, officially known as the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) Sophia, was a military operation launched by the European Union in 2015. Its primary objective was to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks operating in the central Mediterranean Sea.

Additionally, Operation Sophia aimed to enhance the capacity and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy to combat human smuggling and trafficking in their territorial waters. This involved monitoring and reporting suspicious maritime activities related to the illicit arms trade.

Naval assets from EU member states were deployed to the Mediterranean under Operation Sophia to carry out various activities. These activities included identifying, capturing, and disposing of vessels used by smugglers and traffickers, as well as gathering and sharing information to support law enforcement and judicial processes.

Operation Sophia also had a secondary mandate to contribute to the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolutions on the arms embargo in Libya. This involved monitoring and reporting suspicious maritime activities related to the illicit arms trade.

The EU continues to seek closer relations with third countries to address migration, and the external aspects of migration are crucial for successful implementation. This includes establishing partnerships with key countries, addressing the root causes of migration, preventing irregular departures, fighting migrant smuggling, and increasing returns.

In conclusion, the European Union is considering strengthening Operation IRINI to combat human trafficking via Libya. This is due to the volatile situation in Libya, where armed groups and criminal networks are exploiting the instability to engage in illicit activities, including human trafficking. The strengthening of Operation IRINI presents an opportunity for the EU to demonstrate its commitment to protecting vulnerable migrants, disrupting criminal networks, and promoting stability in the region.

Prof. Miral Sabry AlAshry

Prof. Miral Sabry AlAshry is Co-lead for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at the Centre for Freedom of the Media, the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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