2. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if Naval Service vessels, as part of Operation Sophia (details supplied), have observed or have been prevented by the Libyan Coast Guard from going to the aid of migrants in distress in international waters in view of the fact that it has threatened, shot at persons at sea and in the sea contrary to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. (Question 20510/18 asked on 10 May 2018)

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: This question relates to the role of the Naval Service in Operation Sophia when it changed from Operation Pontus. Is the Navy contributing to an ongoing immigration problem and abuse of human rights, particularly in detention centres in Libya?

(Deputy Paul Kehoe): The EU Common Security and Defence Policy operation EUNAVFOR MED, Operation Sophia, was launched in June 2015. It is part of the EU’s broader action to provide a comprehensive response to the global migration and refugee crisis, as well as encouraging a democratic, stable and prosperous Libya. It specifically seeks to counter human trafficking and smuggling in the southern central Mediterranean by taking action against the criminal networks and disrupting the smugglers business model. The mission is also providing capacity building and training to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy while contributing to the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 2240 and 2292. These resolutions also authorise the interception of vessels suspected of being used for illicit activities and impose an arms embargo on Libya in an effort to prevent the flow of illicit arms and related material into that country.

Training being provided to the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard as part of Operation Sophia aims to improve the security of Libyan territorial waters; to enhance the capability of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard in law enforcement at sea; and to improve their ability to perform search-and-rescue activities to save lives in Libyan territorial waters. Libyan Coast Guard training is a positive move towards capacity building by the EU mission. It is the fastest way to deliver effects in reducing irregular migrant flows and intercepting smuggler activity inside territorial waters.

In July 2017, Government and Dáil approval was secured for the deployment of a Naval Service vessel as part of Operation Sophia. The participation by LÉ Niamh in Operation Sophia represented the first involvement by the Naval Service in a multilateral security operation under a UN mandate. In the course of an 11-week deployment in the Mediterranean, the LÉ Niamh rescued 613 migrants, assisting with a further 107 migrant rescues.

In addition to search-and-rescue operations, the Irish vessel also undertook activities in support of the core task of the mission including gathering information on oil smuggling, patrols focusing on countering illegal arms trafficking, operations to intercept smugglers and people traffickers and monitoring the effectiveness of the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard activity from a stand-off distance. In February 2018, the Government approved a further Naval Service contribution to Operation Sophia and two naval vessels will deploy for approximately 30 weeks from mid-April to end-November.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Defence Forces have confirmed that Irish naval vessels have not observed or been prevented by the Libyan Coast Guard from going to the aid of migrants in distress in international waters.

The core task of contributing to disrupting the smugglers’ business model involves identifying potential smugglers when on search-and-rescue operations and handing them over to the Italian authorities when disembarking the rescued persons. Irish Naval Service ships have not intercepted smugglers but have identified them when they are rescued and have handed them over to the Italian authorities. All rescued migrants are embarked in Italian ports.

Operation Sophia has so far contributed to the apprehension of 130 suspected smugglers and traffickers, removed approximately 520 boats from criminal organisations availability, contributed to almost 290 safety of life at sea events  and rescued over 42,400 migrants.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: As the Minister of State will know, there have been reports of migrant boats being shot at by the Libyan Coast Guard. Will he outline if any vessel involved in Operation Sophia, in particular Irish Naval Service vessels, were present when the Libyan Coast Guard acted in a manner that was aggressive towards migrants in international waters or shot at or above the heads of migrants in unseaworthy vessels? Will the Minister of State confirm no migrants were taken back to Libya by Operation Sophia vessels? I know from a previous answer that Irish Naval Service vessels do not engage in that practice. However, do they transfer them to other countries’ naval vessels which then forward them to or return them to the Libyan Coast Guard which then puts them in inhumane detention centres and adds them to the slave trade, which is now growing in Libya itself?

Deputy Paul Kehoe: I am not aware of any vessels being shot at by the Libyan Coast Guard.

Any migrants picked up by any of the participating countries in Operation Sophia are brought to Italian ports. What could happen on occasion is that a vessel might pick up 300 migrants while an Irish Naval Service vessel could pick up 50 migrants. Instead of the two vessels going to the Italian port, we would transfer the smaller number of migrants to other vessel. At all times, they are brought to Italian ports. Navies participating in Operation Sophia are not allowed into Libyan territorial waters.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: The Minister of State referred to the other duties of those participating in Operation Sophia. Apart from intercepting people smugglers and migrants trying to head towards Europe, is there any success in capturing those involved in people smuggling, or preventing weapons and oil smuggling in that part of the Mediterranean in which the LÉ Samuel Beckett is currently operating?

Deputy Paul Kehoe: As I outlined in my original reply, there are other facets to Operation Sophia in which members of the Irish Naval Service participate. As I stated at the committee meeting last week, I intend to visit the headquarters of Operation Sophia within the next month or two, when I will get a full update on our involvement and the involvement of other participants in Operation Sophia. Ireland is very much in communication with the operation headquarters and we have people based in the headquarters itself. We will continue to participate fully in Operation Sophia. I am not able to give the Deputy the exact details on how we have assisted with regard to oil smuggling off the top of my head. If I have specific numbers I will come back to the Deputy on it. As I said at the committee meeting last week, after I visit the headquarters of Operation Sophia and meet the mission leader I will have no issue in going back to the committee and giving it a fully detailed brief.