The Dáil has agreed to mobilise an Irish Navy vessel in the Mediterranean as part of Operation Irini, whose main stated purpose is to uphold an arms embargo on Libya. But as Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin and Niamh Keady-Tabbal explain, Operation Irini is also part of the EU’s Fortress Europe architecture, facilitating pullbacks and ongoing abuse by the Libyan Coast Guard.
A motion to deploy a Naval Service Vessel as part of EUNAVFORMED (European Union Naval Force Mediterranean) Operation Irini, an EU Common Security and Defence Policy naval operation in the Mediterranean, was passed by the Dáil at the end of April. The Government motion went unopposed, except by People Before Profit-Solidarity.
According to Mícheál Martin, the naval operation’s main purpose is to help implement the arms embargo on Libya. Its secondary purpose is to “contribute to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks, in accordance with applicable law.”
The Dáil debate on the motion centred around two questions. Firstly, would Naval Service personnel be involved in training the Libyan Coast Guard? And secondly, would there be a commitment to provide assistance to people in distress at sea?
On the first of these questions, Martin said, “it is not intended that Naval Service personnel will engage in this activity [training the Libyan Coast Guard] when deployed to Operation Irini”. However, the fact remains that training the Libyan Coast Guard is explicitly stated as one of the tasks of Operation Irini’s mission.
As Paul Murphy outlined in the Dáil, the statement regarding the government’s “intention” provides little assurance:
“Let those of us in opposition not fool ourselves that we have a commitment. Instead, the Tánaiste stated that it is not intended that Naval Service personnel will be involved. […] If the intention changes, there is no legal requirement to come back for another vote here. We will have given the approval, the triple lock will be unlocked, and there will be no necessity for another vote.”
On the second question, Gary Gannon spoke about the work of Irish Naval personnel under Operation Sophia, a previous iteration of EUNAVFORMED, who were involved in search and rescue and did, in fact, save many lives. Gannon proposed an amendment to the motion, to say that “all maritime units deployed are subject to the obligation under international law to provide assistance to persons in distress at sea”.
Though well intentioned, the amendment merely restates what is already an obligation under international law. It does not address the structure or nature of the operation, which is organised, not to rescue people, but rather to circumvent migrant routes and avoid situations where rescue could become a legal imperative.
Irini is deliberately located “at least 100km off the Libyan coast, where chances to conduct rescue operations are lower”.
Operation Sophia, which preceded Irini, did play a significant role in search and rescue, but was discontinued precisely because it was seen to be creating a “pull factor” for migrant crossings.
Irini can be readily used as part of the Fortress Europe architecture designed to prevent migrants from coming to Europe. The training of the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) is just one of the indicators of this, but the issues do not stop there.
Coast Guard or Detention Force?
Part of the remit of Operation Irini, as agreed by the European Council in 2020, is to “contribute to the capacity building and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy in law enforcement tasks at sea”.
This decision was taken despite the well documented abuses suffered by migrants at the hands of the LCG and in the detention camps they have been returned to by the LCG. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report outlines how the EU was facilitating abuse in Libya:
“European Union (EU) migration cooperation with Libya is contributing to a cycle of extreme abuse. The EU is providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard to enable it to intercept migrants and asylum seekers at sea after which they take them back to Libya to arbitrary detention, where they face inhuman and degrading conditions and the risk of torture, sexual violence, extortion, and forced labor.”
Amnesty International has also documented the use of unlawful lethal force in at least three detention centres, including the murder of migrants who were attempting to escape.
The magnitude of the horrors that have been happening in Libya is difficult to contemplate. Mustafa, a Malian man in Libya, summed up the attitude to the lives of migrants in an interview with MSF:
“A foreigner is like a blood diamond – they can be kidnapped to make money out of them.
“Some migrants ended up dying in the prison, and when they did, they were simply thrown out as if they were animals. Their families don’t even know where they are buried. This is why people like me are suffering here. And Europe is giving tools to fuel this system of suffering.”
These “tools” include funding from programmes like the EU Trust Fund for Africa. €59 million was allocated to Libya under this fund, which includes “Support to Integrated border and migration management in Libya”, as well as “humanitarian repatriation and reintegration of vulnerable migrants in Libya”. EU funding to the LCG, provided under the guise of humanitarianism to ‘rescue’ people, in effect, facilitates their kidnapping and detention in labour camps.
But providing training to the Libyan Coast Guard is not the only problem that the Irish Government has overlooked. Participating in Operation Irini also means cooperating directly with Frontex – the EU’s militarised border management agency.
Frontex: Fortress Europe’s Muscle
Frontex coordinates with national border and coast guards to control the EU’s ‘external’ borders. The agency is present across 15 European countries, as well as in Niger, Senegal and Turkey. While Frontex relies on the pretext of ‘saving lives at sea’ to justify its maritime operations, the overarching aim is to prevent racialised migrants from reaching Europe.
Established in 2004, Frontex has seen massive annual budget increases since 2014. Its 2022 budget was its biggest yet at €754 million – up from €543m in 2021 and €460 in 2020. Agency staff numbers are planned to reach 10,000 by 2027.
Following reports exposing Frontex’s complicity in Greece’s violent campaign of systematic pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, the agency came under scrutiny by the European Parliament and Olaf, the EU’s anti-corruption agency.
Asylum seekers entering Greece are denied access to asylum procedures and subjected to illegal and life-threatening ‘pushback’ practices. In what is now Greece’s ‘de facto border policy’ asylum seekers are taken aboard Greek Coast Guard ships, robbed, beaten, forced into inflatable, motorless life rafts and left to drift.
Frontex officers ‘detect’ boats of asylum seekers attempting to cross the Aegean Sea and hand responsibility over to the Greek Coast Guard, directly facilitating these systematic violations of EU and international law.
Footage has also shown Frontex’s own vessels engaging in dangerous manoeuvres to push boats carrying migrants away from Greek shores.
Despite denying involvement in pushbacks or other violations of fundamental rights, the agency’s internal records reveal its attempts to conceal Greek border violence, by deliberately mis-recording pushback incidents. Olaf’s investigation also showed how the agency strategically deployed its aerial assets “to avoid witnessing incidents in the Aegean Sea”.
From Pushbacks to Pullbacks: Frontex and Libya
Frontex performs a similar role in relation to Libya. In this case, however, its surveillance is used to notify Libyan authorities in order to prevent migrants from leaving Libyan waters – to facilitate “pullbacks”, in other words. In 2021, Libyan forces captured more than 32,400 people. According to Border Forensics and Human Rights Watch, almost one third of the interceptions were facilitated by intelligence gathered by Frontex through aerial surveillance.
This is happening in conjunction with a shift by the EU from naval patrols to aerial surveillance. In March 2019, the EU withdrew its 7 ships from the Central Mediterranean. Two were reintroduced a year later, but these only patrol off the Eastern coast of Libya, where there are few migrant boat departures.
In March 2020, EUNAVFORMED doubled its aerial fleet from 3 to 6 aircraft and began patrolling Libyan airspace. Between 2018 and 2021, Frontex more than doubled its flight time over the Central. The area patrolled is precisely where most interceptions take place.
Frontex operates under the pretext of saving lives. It says it notifies centres in Italy, Malta, Libya and Tunisia when a “boat in distress” is spotted, but only issues a mayday alert to boats in the surrounding area in case of “emergency, where lives are at stake”. As Human Rights Watch says,
“Limiting communication about boats in distress to national rescue center is a deliberately narrow interpretation of when a mayday alert is warranted.”
It means they can communicate with the Libyan Coast Guard without having to alert other nearby boats, which would have to bring the migrants to safe European ports. Instead, if anyone arrives, it’s the LCG, who transport the migrants back to a living hell.
A “clear, discernible pattern” has been identified by Lighthouse Reports:
“Boats in distress are spotted, communications take place between European actors and the Libyan coast guard. No notice is given to nearby commercial shipping or NGO vessels despite its proximity to urgent situations where boats are in distress on the open sea.”
Although the real numbers are likely much higher, a representative sample from Lighthouse showed “Frontex present and watching while at least 91 people went missing and are presumed drowned.”
There is a total lack of transparency about these procedures, as information about operational matters is systematically denied by Frontex. But there is clear evidence of collaboration between Frontex and the LCG, including “back channels” where refugee boat coordinates are shared via WhatsApp.
The LCG lacks the equipment to operate effectively without Frontex. It is being directed by European eyes in the sky.
Irini Cooperates with Frontex and the LCG
How does Operation Irini fit into this architecture of surveillance, pullbacks and systematic human rights abuses at EU borders?
When Irini was launched, EU High Representative Josep Borrell warned that “Maritime assets will be withdrawn from the relevant areas”, if they were seen to be attractive by migrants. Borrell previously described Europe as a “garden” that must be protected from the “jungle” outside it. Here we see racist ideology played out as policy.
The 2020 expansion of EUNAVFORMED aerial surveillance into Libyan airspace is part of Operation Irini. It was followed in 2021 by an agreement between Irini and Frontex which would see them exchange information and cooperate on the training of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard.
Answers from Joseph Borrell to questions from German MEP Özlem Demirel reveal that Irini has already collaborated with the LCG. Between 31 March and 21 July 2020, “Aerial assets” deployed by Irini “spotted eight potentially distress situations in the Libyan Search and Rescue Region” and informed the Libyan authorities. Given the short time frame in question, it is likely that far more of these instances have occurred. As Demirel says, this amounts to, “cooperation with the torturing regime in Libya regarding the push and pull back of refugees”.
Worse still, there is little hope of any accountability for the EU’s role in these abuses as military missions like Operation Irini are excluded from the jurisdiction of the EU’s Court of Justice.
Anatomy of a Fortress
The reality of the EU’s migration policy in the Mediterranean is that it has largely abandoned the idea of search and rescue or providing a safe place of asylum for people. The policy is one of containment, deterence and forced return.
The scale of widespread deaths and the imperative of saving life at sea is used as a justification to close borders, but behind these excuses lies a callous indifference to human life.
Where possible, the EU tries to distance itself from the coal face of its border barbarism, outsourcing migration control to other regimes. As Violeta Moreno-Lax and Mariagiulia Giuffré say, “By transferring the coercive management of exiles to third countries, it aims to eliminate any physical contact, direct or indirect, between refugees and the authorities of would-be destination States.”
At every level, huge amounts of funding are being supplied to police borders, to police the Mediterranean and to facilitate third countries in containing migrants outside the EU.
This is done under the pretext of preventing smuggling and human trafficking, ignoring the fact that smuggling and trafficking occur precisely because of the EU’s failure to provide safe passage for people. The “push factors” – such as war, persecution, or climate related disasters – that drive people to migrate under such perilous conditions are also overlooked.
“Smuggling” and “trafficking” have become catch-all terms to target migrants and people who are attempting to save lives. Refugees who have done nothing more than steer a boat have been convicted of people smuggling and sentenced to life in prison.
Human rights activists are criminalised and prosecuted for saving lives. In Italy, hostile policies targeting NGOS engaged in search and rescue have been intensified under Giorgia Meloni’s leadership. Charities face fines of up to €50,000 if they do not request a port and sail to it immediately after making one rescue, instead of remaining at sea to rescue people from other boats in difficulty.
This is the context in which Operation Irini is taking place, and it is impossible to isolate its stated main purpose of upholding the Libyan arms embargo from its role in implementing Fortress Europe policies. The deployment of Irish Naval personnel to Irini means that the Irish State will be complicit in any future human rights abuses facilitated or committed by the EU, whether through Irini’s training of the LCG, through the provision of surveillance information which may lead to pullbacks, or through its cooperation with Frontex.
Regardless of Mícheál Martin’s reassurances, the evidence suggests that this is more likely to happen than not.