BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union on Tuesday was considering extending air patrols to search for migrants crossing the Mediterranean but withdrawing ships that could save them, a change in policy that reflects Europe’s growing aversion to irregular arrivals.
The agreement would greatly weaken Operation Sophia’s role in saving lives in the sea where nearly 2,300 people perished last year, according to the United Nations.
Italy, under the influence of the anti-migration deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, has said it would no longer be the main point of disembarkation for people picked up from the water by Operation Sophia ships.
Germany and other EU states are also not keen on hosting the people - most of whom are fleeing wars and poverty in Africa and the Middle East - but they do want the mission to continue.
The discussion among EU diplomats over Operation Sophia, the mandate of which expires on Sunday, stems from feuds over migration that have damaged the bloc’s unity since a surge in chaotic Mediterranean arrivals in 2015.
From the more than one million refugees and migrants who made it to the bloc in that crisis year, sea arrivals dropped significantly to 141,500 people in 2018, according to U.N. data.
The potential compromise among EU states, according to a draft document seen by Reuters, would prolong Operation Sophia for six months but only for air patrols of the Mediterranean.
It would also include training of the coast guard in Libya, where lawlessness has allowed smugglers sending people to Europe to operate freely in recent years.
EU diplomats said the proposal was not yet certain to win the final endorsement.
But it would be in line with the EU’s policy of turning increasingly restrictive on Mediterranean immigration since 2015 and discouraging people from risking their lives in the sea in trying to cross to Europe where governments do not want them.
The bloc has already curbed operations of EU aid groups in the part of the Mediterranean in question and moved its own ships further north where fewer rescues take place.
That is because the bloc is unwilling to take care of more people coming, which it would be obliged to do under international law if EU ships take them onboard.
Sophia’s website shows the mission currently has two ships deployed in the sea - one Spanish and one Italian - but dozens of other vessels have been involved at different times since the naval mission was first launched in June 2015.
Five air planes and helicopters are now active under Sophia, which could become an EU naval mission without ships.
As the EU has taken on an increasingly adverse stance on irregular immigration from the Middle East and Africa since 2015, it has also tightened its borders and asylum laws, and struck deals with countries on the eastern and southern rim of the Mediterranean to prevent people from embarking for Europe.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Angus MacSwan