An agreement on a EU Naval mission to ensure compliance with the UN arms embargo off the Libyan coast is jeopardised over objections from Austria and Hungary as well as Italian refusal to allow potential disembarkation of migrants. Authorities in the Republic of Cyprus refused a boat carrying 175 Syrian nationals to dock due entry-bans imposed against the spread of  the COVID-19 virus.

Following the EU Foreign Affairs Council the future of the naval mission agreed in principle by the 27 member states is still uncertain. High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell stated on Monday 23 March : “We agreed to launch a new operation in the Mediterranean and Operation Sophia will be closed.” However, Austria, with the backing of Hungary, objected to redeploying vessels as they consider that any naval deployment, which will have to comply with search and rescue obligations, will make migration more appealing.Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio stated  that his governments rejects allowing potentially saved migrants to disembark given the countries need to focus on fighting the Corona virus. The naval mission is intended to contribute to stabilising Libya and to ensure the effectiveness of the UN arms embargo.

Further, a recent report by the New York Times outlined how the EU and Italy are assisting human rights abuses by supporting to the so-called Libyan coast guard to identify people at sea and ordering commercial ships to intercept and return them to torture and inhumane detention conditions in Libya.

A fishing boat carrying 175 Syrians – 30 women, 69 children and 76 men, was denied access to the Republic of Cyprus on March 21. According to police spokesperson Christos Andreou: “The police acted according to the ministerial decisions, which ban entry into Cyprus, as part of the protection measures due to the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19)”. Local media reports that the group was later accepted in the Northern part of the divided island, where they were being tested and monitored at the hospital in Famagusta.

As of March 23, 15,814 people have arrived by sea this year to Italy, Greece, Spain, Malta and Cyprus. Out of those Cyprus received 363 people. 2019 deaths have been recorded on the Mediterranean in 2020 up until March 23.

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Photo: (CC) Tom Lee, August 2015

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin . You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.