Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis called on the EU to resume an operation that aims to halt migrants before leaving Libya.
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,” Kairidis said in an interview with American news website POLITICO.
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.
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.”