Greece wants the EU to stop migrant boats before they even get to Europe.
In an interview with POLITICO, newly appointed Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis called on the EU to resume an operation that aims to halt migrants before leaving Libya, a common departure point for asylum seekers coming to Europe.
The appeal comes as the Greek government fights off allegations of negligence after a shipwreck killed hundreds of migrants heading for Europe from Libya. Survivors have claimed the Greek coast guard’s attempt to tow the vessel caused it to capsize, and various media accounts have shown the boat was stalled for hours before the coast guard intervened.
“These tragedies will continue to happen unless we stop departures from Libya and other places on ships that are unseaworthy,” Kairidis said. “There will, unfortunately, be cases where it will simply be impossible to always save human life.”
One solution to avoid other tragedies, Kairidis argued, is for the EU to resume “Operation Sophia,” an EU-led naval mission designed to break up smuggling routes in the Mediterranean that was officially shelved in 2020.
“We support the launch of an ‘Operation Sophia-plus’ to break up migrant smuggling routes from Libya,” Kairidis told POLITICO during his first visit to Brussels, where he met EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson.
“EU vessels would station in the Libyan territorial waters with the agreement of the local government, which I am hopeful will accept,” he added.
The EU has not settled on how it should respond to the Adriana shipwreck. The European Parliament on Thursday backed a non-binding resolution urging the EU to establish a Europe-wide search-and-rescue operation for migrants. But some diplomats fear this would only encourage migrant departures from North Africa and feed the business model of people smugglers.
Johansson declined to endorse this approach during a tense hearing on Wednesday.
The Greek proposal is slightly different than the Parliament proposal, however. It would essentially be aimed at blocking boats from leaving in the first place, breaking up smuggling routes through the Mediterranean in the process. But critics point out that Libya has traditionally been reluctant to let EU vessels enter its territorial waters for such efforts, and that its detention centers violate migrants’ rights.
Kairidis also defended the Greek coast guard against criticism that it ignored multiple offers of help from the EU border agency Frontex.
The minister pointed out that the Greek coast guard has saved thousands of migrants in recent years, and he deferred any judgment on its recent actions to an ongoing national investigation.
“If someone is found guilty, there will be consequences,” he said. “But for the time being we shouldn’t bow to political pressure.”
Kairidis pushed back against testimonies from survivors accusing the Greek authorities of towing the migrant ship and ultimately causing it to capsize. He pointed out that these statements “are not a definite proof,” and that the trawler could not have been towed without the consent of those on board.
The tragedy has increased pressure on Frontex chief Hans Leijtens to end the agency’s operations in Greece due to the country’s lack of cooperation.
But Kairidis warned that such a move would “be totally counterproductive,” as the agency’s work “is of paramount importance to save more lives.”
Separately, the minister defended the Greek government against accusations that it is taking a hardline approach to migration on a par with Hungarian and Polish far-right leaders Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a center-right conservative, recently won a resounding re-election victory.
“Mitsotakis is not Orbán,” Kairidis said. “Hungary and Poland don’t want Frontex, and they have voted against the migration and asylum pact” — a reference to the EU’s recent deal to overhaul how it processes and redistributes migrants.
“We have been the swing state to get the pact over the line,” he added.
Kairidis said the far right and the far left were merely weaponizing migration to “destroy the political center, embodied by [French President Emmanuel] Macron and Mitsotakis.”