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Merkel calls for resumption of EU rescue mission

August 16, 2019

Several months after the EU's migrant rescue mission in the Mediterranean was suspended, Angela Merkel has called for the operation to be resumed once more. The EU rescues were halted following pushback from Italy.

Several people await rescue on a rubber boat in the Mediterranean
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Sea-Eye/F. Heinz

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday called for the resumption of European naval missions to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean.

Since 2015, tens of thousands of migrants were rescued by European naval ships as part of the bloc's anti-smuggling "Operation Sophia," which suspended activity earlier this year.

"It would certainly be good if today we had Operation Sophia and national navies that would carry out rescues," Merkel said in Berlin. She added that it would help with rescuing migrants as well as combating trafficking.

On Tuesday, Merkel also spoke out in support of sea rescues during a panel discussion in northern Germany, calling them "a humanitarian imperative," according to the newspapers of the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland.

Merkel emphasized, however, that fixing the root causes of migration is a top priority, as the issue of migrant rescues "will continue to exist if conditions in Africa do not stabilize."

"It's not always the poorest and the weakest that come. We are speaking with African countries about what we can do to help. We don't want to support smugglers and traffickers," she said.

There is strong support for migrant and refugee sea rescue missions within Germany. An opinion poll last month found that 64% of people surveyed believe it was wrong for the EU to halt its sea rescue mission, while 72% said they support NGO rescue boats.

Mediterranean: Sea rescue from the air

Tensions with Italy over rescues

Italy had been opposed to Operation Sophia on the grounds that rescued migrants were almost exclusively brought to Italian ports and threatened to block the mission if the rules weren't changed. It also challenged other states to take in more arrivals.

Germany had strongly supported the continuation of the naval mission. 

While Sophia's primary mission was to combat smuggling gangs off Libya, it was also tasked with enforcing a weapons embargo on Libya.

Far-right Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has been one of the main forces behind limiting sea rescues, with the far-right politician preventing private rescue boats from docking on Italian shores.

The policy has led to repeated cases of NGO rescue boats holding rescued migrants in cramped and precarious conditions in the middle of the Mediterranean for days and sometimes weeks until other EU members states agree to take in the migrants.

The Spanish migrant rescue ship Open Arms has been waiting over two weeks to dock 134 migrants who they saved in the Mediterranean. The tension has threatened a serious rift in the Italian coalition government, with Salvini banning any migrants from entering Italian waters despite his coalition partner being prepared to let them in.

Six countries across the EU reportedly agreed to settle the migrants on Thursday.

Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte, from the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S), criticized Salvini's "obsessive focus" on immigration in an open letter on Thursday. Salvini last week called for a vote of no confidence against coalition partner Conte, which could topple the government.

Criminal charges

Tensions over sea rescues resulted in a high-profile case this summer involving the German captain of an NGO-run migrant rescue ship. Captain Carola Rackete is facing a fine and possible criminal charges for ignoring orders not to enter Italian waters after being blocked for docking for weeks with 40 rescued migrants on board.

Rights groups have also criticized the actions of the Italian government, saying their policies have led to more deaths in the Mediterranean rather than deterring traffickers.

Italy: Lampedusa and the refugees

rs,cw,jns/rc (Reuters, epd)

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