In the Dáil.
Several TDs, including Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Independents 4 Change TDs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, raised the Irish Navy’s current involvement in the European Union’s Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean where asylum seekers attempting to leave Libya are being brought back to Libya.
Irish freelance journalist Sally Hayden, who last week won the Foreign Coverage award at the Irish Journalism awards for her Irish Times reports on migration matters, has been reporting extensively in recent months on asylum seekers who have been intercepted by the Libyan coastguard and brought back to Libya where they’ve been detained.
Last month, Ms Hayden reported:
“Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been returned to Libya since February 2017, when the country’s UN-backed government entered into a deal with Italy to prevent migration to Europe. Italian politicians have called the deal a success, because it has reduced the number of people arriving on their shores.
“However, for the men, women and children returned to Libya, the situation is bleak. More than a dozen detainees across Tripoli contacted by phone have described detention centres rife with abuse, where they’re fed once a day at most, forced to work, and sometimes beaten or raped. Overcrowding has led to the spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis.“
Further to this.
The Junior Minister for Defence Paul Kehoe told the Dáil this morning that Operation Sophia has helped to “improve overall maritime security”.
He said the latest UN figures show that, as of November 14, 2018, the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea was 103,347 – compared to 156,708 in 2017, and 343,258 in 2016.
He said Ireland’s involvement in Operation Sophia in 2019 is currently being considered and a decision will be made on that following a full review of its 2018 deployments.
He also said: “We have interrupted the smugglers in the model that they are using. We’ve destroyed their boats and they use to smuggle migrants through.”
And he explained: “When we joined Operation Sophia, Operation Pontus [its predecessor] was a humanitarian search and rescue mission undertaken by Ireland’s bilateral agreement with the Italian authorities and the sole focus of that mission was the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean. Now we’ve joined Operation Sophia, it specifically seeks to counter traffic and smuggling in the south Mediterranean, central Mediterranean sea, by taking action against criminal networks.”
Independents 4 Change TD Clare Daly put it to Mr Kehoe that Operation Sophia is not about saving or rescuing people from the Mediterranean but, instead it’s “part of your current drip, drip participation into involvement in a PESCO and a future European army”.
Mr Kehoe said: “Deputy, absolutely, of course, I agree with you 100%. Of course, it’s a military mission. But also it’s a UN-mandated mission.”
“When we joined PESCO, and brought it to the Cabinet, brought it to the House here, it was voted democratically by the members of this House, to join Operation Sophia and it totally changed the mission that we were participating in under Operation Pontus.
“Operation Sophia specifically seeks to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the south, central Mediterranean, by taking action against the criminal networks and disrupting smugglers’ business model by improving maritime security.
“Operation Sophia is actively contributing to the EU and international efforts to, of the return of stability in Libya. In addition, Operation Sophia plays an important role in the training of the Libyan coastguard. We weren’t doing any of that under Operation Pontus.”
Mr Ó Snodaigh put it to Mr Kehoe that it was his understanding that the Irish Navy isn’t in Libyan ports.
Therefore, he asked Mr Kehoe to confirm if the Irish Navy has been “destroying” smugglers’ boats at sea.
He also asked Mr Kehoe to confirm how many boats the Irish Navy has escorted back to Libya.
Mr Kehoe said he would come back to Mr Ó Snodaigh with a figure.
Meanwhile, Mr Wallace said:
“Operation Sophia is pulling people back to a place of violence and human rights violations. Only yesterday, authorities used rubber bullets and tear gas to force over 90 refugees to disembark a cargo ship docked at Misrata.
“The stand-off lasted 10 days. The refugees, including children, said they’d rather die than return to indefinite detention in Libya. This is the reality of Libya and Operation Sophia.
“Now scores of refugees are killing themselves in detention centres where the Irish Navy are helping the Libyan coastguard to keep these desperate people. You said Minister, that you’re saving lives by interrupting smugglers, you’re sending them back to violence.
“They’d rather be killed then go back. You talk about a UN mandate, let’s not forget. The UN gave the mandate to destroy this place in the first place. That’s what they did. There’s no sense in what’s going on there, Minister.”
“We should have nothing to do with this military mission. We’re actually crucifying people by sending them back to Libya which this government, your government, actually, agrees with the NATO mission there. And sadly back by UN mandate.”
Mr Kehoe responded:
“Our mission statement totally changed when we joined Operation Sophia but I wasn’t hiding behind anything.”
Paul Kehoe speaking in the Dáil in January 2018.