Drop-off in migrant rescues on Mediterranean by Irish Naval Service

A combination of factors, including the deliberate sinking of wooden fishing boats, has resulted in a significant fall-off in the number of migrants being rescued by the Naval Service.

Figures released by the Defence Forces show that in 2015 three ships deployed by the navy in the Mediterranean Sea carried out 57 rescue operations during which they brought 8,631 migrants onboard.

Last year three ships were involved in 41 operations, rescuing 6,837 migrants.

This year LÉ Eithne carried out six rescue missions during her tour of duty, picking up 1,188 migrants.

LÉ William Butler Yeats made her second rescue yesterday, saving 149 migrants 54 miles north of Tripoli.

The crew’s first rescue was on July 30 when they plucked 109 migrants from the sea.

Sources within the Defence Forces say there are a number of reasons for the decline in rescues.

The Naval Service has deliberately sunk wooden fishing vessels when it has rescued migrants from them so that people-smugglers will be unable to use them again.

So too have warships belonging to the EU-led Operation Sophia, which is taking a more robust approach to stopping the people smugglers.

This has led the people-smugglers to become increasingly reliant on inflatable dinghies, which they are importing from the Far East.

However, when the wind is blowing inshore they are unable to launch them beyond the surf.

In the meantime, the Libyan coastguard has become more effective in turning back migrant boats within their 12-mile limit.

Volunteer ships from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also increasingly going in close to the coastline to pick up migrants.

It has been claimed that on a couple of recent occasions, they have got in so close that migrants moved to one side of their craft in an effort to be the first to be rescued and as a result caused it to capsize.

Meanwhile, the Irish navy ships, which would have previously been reasonably close to shore, are now further out to sea, meaning the NGOs are far more likely to be first to the scene of rescues.

More than 110,000 migrants from northern Africa and the Middle East have made a perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe this year, according to the UN.

The Irish ships are currently working with the Italians under the purely humanitarian Operation Pontus and are under the command of an Italian admiral.

The Italians previously positioned Naval Service ships in a more frontline role, but according to well-placed sources they have now positioned LÉ William Butler Yeats further off the Libyan coast, to be held in reserve should the NGO ships get overwhelmed, or to respond should there be a security risk.

Islamic State still has a presence in Libya and therefore is a security threat.

In the meantime, the country is being torn apart by a number of other different armed groups.

The Irish Government recently agreed to switch the Naval Service’s role, which will occur while LÉ William Butler Yeats is still on her tour of duty.

The ship will then be involved in a more aggressive anti-people-smuggling role, which will include ensuring a UN weapons embargo is imposed on Libya, training Libyan coastguard units and seeking and destroying shipments of inflatable dinghies.

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