Triton and Sophia Operation: A Critical Analysis

Triton and Sophia Operation: A Critical Analysis

This essay analyzes the response of European institutions to the immigration emergency in the Central Mediterranean Sea area since 2015. It focuses on the analysis of two of the operations coordinated by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX): Operation Triton (OT) and Operation Sophia (OS). Particularly, it analyzes the effectiveness and timeliness of the European Council (EC) decisions regarding the logistical, administrative, and political management of these two missions. Firstly, it analyzes OT’s funding, as well as the EC resolutions regarding its area of expertise. The second part mainly analyzes the legislative difficulties in the OS execution and how these were addressed by the EC. It concludes highlighting the administrative indecision in the OT management and the EC political inability to conclude the initial objectives envisaged by the OS.

OT started in November 2014, replacing the underway Italian governmental operation called Mare Nostrum (OMN). The OT provided for the patrol and control of the Italian coasts and a search-and-rescue activity (SAR).1 At least for the first six months, the EC underestimated the gravity in the central Mediterranean Sea. The EC decision to replace OMN with one highly unsuitable for the circumstances demonstrated a major lack of foresight on the matter. Indeed, the operation started highly underfunded compared to the previous OMN, while the number of fugitives were increasing,2 making many analysts wonder why Europe had replaced the previous Italian-led operation.3 Albeit late, the EC acknowledged the insufficiency of funds: the increase in the number of shipwrecks and in particular the deaths of more than a thousand people in April 2015 prompted the European leaders to approve a 10-point plan on the 20th of the same month, aiming at improving Operation Triton by doubling its budget, among other things.4 The world’s leading human rights NGO Amnesty International (AI) declared April events as ‘predictable man-made tragedy’.5 Indeed, seen the political instability in Libyan Tripolitania and the increase in the departures from the Libyan coast, the phenomenon was highly foreseeable. Nonetheless, The European institutions decided to replace OMN in the middle of the immigration crisis. At the speech to the European Parliament on the same day, Claude Junker acknowledged the mistake publicly, declaring: ‘It was a serious mistake to bring Operation Mare Nostrum to an end. It cost human lives.’6 This public statement and the OT fund revision only after the April tragic events demonstrate the initial crisis mismanagement on the part of the European institutions.

However, OT remained highly insufficient even after the EC decision to improve its budget: it still employed fewer human resources, ships and aircraft than OMN7, while crossing attempts of the sea had increased compared to 2014, as shown by the Ismu Foundation.8 The European leaders reconsidered the situation only three days after the 10-point plan approval, showing again concrete unsureness in the operation management: in an emergency meeting on the 23rd, the European Council decided to provide 120 more million euros to strengthen Frontex-led OT. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared: ‘We felt that doubling it [the budget] wasn’t really that credible, so we wanted to bring it up to the same level as we had for Mare Nostrum.’9 As demonstrated, the EC fully acknowledged the mismanagement of OT so far, confirming the initial perplexities of many analysts regarding the replacement of OMN with OT.

The extra funding did not stop AI to consider OT inadequate. Although recognizing the European institutions good intentions, AI’s Director for Europe and Central Asia John Dalhuisen declared: ‘the reality is they are still only meeting the problem halfway. […] Unless they go the extra mile, migrants and refugees will continue to drown and Europe will have again failed shamefully – to deal with this tragedy on its doorstep.’10 Indeed, already days before the decision to increase the OT budget, an analysis by AI had showed that the problem was not so much the lack of funds but rather the choice of the maritime area to patrol.11 The OT operational area was limited to the southern Italian territorial sea, while most of shipwrecks occurred off the Libyan coast, making fund increasing virtually useless. Despite the public accusation, the Frontex chief Leggeri respond: ‘Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation. I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is in my understanding not in the mandate of the European Union.’12 This policy originated in the belief that a SAR operation off the Libyan territorial sea would encourage departures and fuel illegal immigration smuggling.13 However, this accusation proved wrong soon: despite the cancellation of OMN, the drownings and attempts to cross the sea continued to rise.14 Once again, the European response came belatedly: it was only at the end of May 2015 that Leggeri decided to extend the Triton operation from 30 to 138 nautical miles south of Sicily, thus partly accepting the AI requests.15 However, so many changes to the OT showed the EU’s inability to understand the severity of the crisis in time. As showed, the increase in funding came only in late April after the deaths of thousands of people and, after just three days, finances were tripled, revealing the programmatic indecision of the European leaders. This insecurity is also proved by the belated acceptance of expanding the operational area of the mission, which continued without substantial changes until February 2018.

The European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (renamed Operation Sophia, OS) was launched on the 22nd of June 2015, with the aim of identifying and arresting human smugglers. OS operated much further south than OT, between 12 and 60 nautical miles from the Libyan coast.16 Initially, the mission consisted of three phases. However, the operation only arrived in the middle of phase two for the reasons illustrated in this paragraph. The first phase of the operation was ’to establish a presence and develop an understanding of the patterns of life within the area. This included determining the background merchant and other maritime traffic, whilst determining the main hubs for migrant launch activity.’17 According to the first six-months operation report, phase one proved to be a success: Operation Commander Credendino stated that the modus operandi of smugglers and traffickers had been successfully identified and comprehended. In December, Credendino presented the phase one results to the UN authorities in New York and Washington, which declared to be ’impressed with the outcomes achieved.’18 The success of phase one proved crucial to gain the UN support for phase two, as Credendino explained in the report.19 However, this endorsement proved to be only partial, as showed below.

Launched on the 7th of October 2015, phase two revealed to be more complex: this included ‘boarding, search, seizure and diversion of suspected boats’ on the high seas at first (2A), and subsequently in ’Libyan territorial waters, in its ports and in its coastal areas (2B).’20 However, the 2015 current legislation could have made such activities hard to conduct. These were regulated by the Article 110 ‘Right of visit’ of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).21 However, this provision ‘[did] not explicitly allow the exercise of additional coercive powers, but at the same time it [did] not prohibit them.’22 This ‘regulatory vacuum’ allowed the Security Council of the United Nations (SCUN) to enact the Resolution No.2240 on the 8th October 2015, authorizing member states to ’conduct boarding, search, seizure and diversion, on the high seas, of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking’ from Libya.23 Surprisingly, the UN 2240 Resolution came only two days after moving to phase two, demonstrating the European Council properly intuition on the matter. Indeed, already from the European Council meeting of the 28th of September, the EU Ambassadors had announced that from the 7th of October the OS would be able to exercise coercive powers legally.24 Therefore, it was decided to move on to phase two during the same briefing, displaying a quick decision-making ability.25 It is also worth noticing that the OS was well received by the majority of EU Member States, as evidenced by the support provided to it.26 This may have led the European Council to expect the approval of some ‘legislative support’ by the UN member states. Either case, the EC acted with great timing and improved the effectiveness of phase 2A by gaining the UN legislative assistance.

The success of phases 1 and 2A prompted the EC to start international negotiations to obtain permission to start phase 2B. As highlighted by Credendino in his report, phase 2B needed either the Security Council (UN) endorsement or the Libyan government (GNA) approval.27 Indeed, the OS three phases were established even with the awareness of not having the necessary legislation to implement them. This was probably due to the pressure of the EU member states and above all from Italy, which asked urgently the European institutions to assume its responsibilities to contrast the illegal immigrants smuggling.28 As showed below, EC believed to be able to obtain the necessary authorizations during the operation development. However, this strategy failed: despite the Commander’s request for ‘international collaboration’ on the matter, phase 2B met the Russian and Chinese opposition and was rejected at the UN meeting in December 2015. In its place, the Resolution No.2259 was adopted, which merely provided international support to the newborn GNA, including Libyan Coast Guard training, yet no military action on its territory.29 Therefore, the EU tried to obtain the GNA authorization to enter Libyan water. However, this negotiation was unsuccessful too, and the mission remained ’stuck’ at phase 2A until May 2017.30 Although the 15th of May 2017 EEAS report stated that ‘Op. Sophia is likely not to be able to transition to Phase 2B in the foreseeable future ‘, its terminational was strongly not recommended.31 Given the situation, the EC decided to remain in phase 2A and assign new tasks to the operation, such as ’[setting] up a monitoring mechanism of trainees of the Libyan Coastguard’ and ’conduct new surveillance activities and gather information on illegal trafficking of oil exports from Libya’.32 Meanwhile, a drastic reduction in the departures of immigrants from the Libyan coasts happened between 2017 and 2018.33 However, this phenomenon would be attributable to the Italian government and Libyan tribal chiefs bilateral negotiations, rather than to the OS activity. Indeed, the Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti had stipulated a pact with the Libyan tribal leaders which provided for help in countering human smugglers in exchange for financial help.34 These new events led the EC to reduce the naval assets and the OS finance.35 The failure to complete the OS initial aims weakened the international image of the EU institutions. Indeed, these proved unable to support the completion of OS legally and strategically, demonstrating the inadequacy of the policy employed. Furthermore, the failure of the OS revealed the political weakness of the EC, incapable to pursue a compact strategy nor to obtain authorization from the GNA to act in Libyan waters.

This paper analyzed the EC management and decisions regarding Operation Triton and Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean. It concludes that the replacement of the OMN with the underfunded OT was a major lack of foresight on the part of the EC. Indeed, OT was launched inadequately despite the foreseeable possibility of the migratory flow increasement. This condition changed only in late April 2015, after five months from the operation beginning and a high rate of shipwrecks. The area of expertise initially established was not suitable for the mission SAR objective, as most of the shipwrecks occurred much further south, being missing. Instead, the first phase of OS was well conducted, with a considerable degree of success. On this occasion, the EC demonstrated ability to the UN resolution and the consensus of most EU member states, which improved the effectiveness of phase 2A. However, the legislative and political inability to complete the mission demonstrated the political weakness of the EC in obtaining results from diplomatic negotiations.

Daniele Scano


1 European Political Strategy Centre, ‘Irregular Migration via the Central Mediterranean’, issue 22, 02 February 2017, p. 3. Available at: [Accessed 05 May 2021].

2 Fondazione Ismu, ‘Migrants arrived in Italy by boat, 1997-2016′, 25 May 2015. Available at: [Accessed 03 May 2021].

3 Koller, E. ‘Mare Nostrum vs. Triton’, European Studies, The University of Toronto, 2017, pp. 8-9. Available at: [Accessed 01 May 2021]; The Economist Group, ‘Migrants in the Mediterranean: The number nightmares’, The Economist, 18 April 2015. Available at: [Accessed 01 May 2021].

4 For the 10-point plan full text, see: European Commission, ‘Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council: Ten point plan action on immigration, 20 April 2015. Available at: [Accessed 01 May 2021].

5 Kingsley, P. ‘EU ministers meet for crisis talks after hundreds of migrants drown in Mediterranean’, The Guardian, April 2015. Available at: [Accessed 03 May 2021].

6 European Commission, ‘Speech by President Jean-Claude Juncker at the debate in the European Parliament on the conclusions of the Special European Council on 23 April: ‘Tackling the migration crisis’, 29 April 2015. Available at: file:///C:/Users/93dan/Downloads/Speech_by_President_Jean-Claude_Juncker_at_the_debate_in_the_European_Parliament_on_the_conclusions_of_the_Special_European_Council_on_23_April___Tackling_the_migration_crisis_.pdf [Accessed 06 May 2021].

7 Koller, E. ‘Mare Nostrum vs. Triton’, pp. 4-5, 8-9.

8 See reference number two.

9 Sridharan, V. ‘EU to triple funding for ‘Operation Triton’ to tackle Mediterranean migrant crisis’, International Business Time, 24 April 2015. Available at: [Accessed 01 May 2021].

10 Amnesty International, ‘Europe’s response: “Face-saving not a life-saving operation”, 24 April 2015. Available at: [Accessed 01 May 2021].

11 Amnesty International, ‘Europe’s sinking shame: The failure to save refugees and migrants at sea’ (London, Amnesty International Ltd, 2015). Available at: (Italian version) [Accessed 01 May 2021].

12 Kingsley, P. ‘EU borders chief says saving migrants’ lives ‘shouldn’t be priority’ for patrols’, The Guardian, 22 April 2015. Available at: [Accessed 01 May 2021].

13 Koller, Mare Nostrum vs. Triton, p. 6.

14 Amnesty International, ’A safer sea: The impact of increased search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean’, 9 July 2015. Available at: [Accessed 02 May 2021].

15 Frontex, ’Frontex expands its Joint Operation Triton’, 26 May 2015. Available at: [Accessed 02 May 2021].

16 European Commission, ’EU OPERATIONS in the MEDITERRANEAN SEA’, 04 October 2016. Available at: [Accessed 02 May 2021].

17 WikiLeaks, ’EUNAVFOR MED – Operation SOPHIA’, 17 February 2016, p. 9. Available at: [accessed 02 May 2021].

18 WikiLeaks, ’EUNAVFOR MED’, pp. 10, 13.

19 WikiLeaks, ‘EUNAVFOR MED’, pp. 13-14.

20 Bevilaqua, G. ’Exploring the Ambiguity of Operation Sophia Between Military and Search and Rescue Activities’, in The Future of the Law of the Sea, edited by Gemma Andreone (Rome, Springer Open, 2017), p. 170.

21 For full text see: UNCLOS, ’Part VII: High Seas’. Available at: [Accessed 02 May 2021].

22 Bevilaqua, G. ’Exploring the Ambiguity of Operation Sophia’, p. 174.

23 European Papers, ’Operation Sophia Before and After UN Security Council Resolution No 2240’, 22 April 2016. Available at: [Accessed 02 May 2021].

24 Zichi, G.L. ’A European Fleet to address the Migration Challenge in the Mediterranean?’, in Athens Journal of Mediterranean Studies, Vol. 4, II. p. 144. Available at: [Accessed 04 May 2021].

25 WikiLeaks, ’EUNAVFOR MED’, p. 10.

26 The Member States participating to the mission were: Cyprus, Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Great Britain, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Spain, Luxemburg, Poland, France, Rumania, Sweden, and Slovenia; Tardy, T. ’Operation Sophia: Tackling the refugee crisis with military means’, in European Union Institute for Security Studies, September 2015, pp. 3-4. Available at: [Accessed 04 May 2021].

27 Zichi, ’A European Fleet’, p. 145; WikiLeaks, ‘EUNAVFOR MED’, pp. 19-20.

28 Matteo Renzi, ‘Matteo Renzi: Helping the Migrants is Everyone’s Duty’, The New York Times, 22 April 2015. Available at: [Accessed 05 May 2021].

29 United Nations, ’Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2259 (2015), Security Council Welcomes Signing of Libyan Political Agreement on New Government for Strife-Torn Country’, 23 December 2015. Available at: [Accessed 02 May 2021].

30 Zichi, ’A European Fleet’, p. 148.

31 Zichi, ‘A European Fleet, p. 148.

32 Zichi, ’A European Fleet’, pp. 148-9.

33 Zichi, ’A European Fleet’, pp. 149-50.

34 Reynolds, J. ’Marco Minniti: The man who cut the migrant flow to Italy’, Bbc News, 20 September 2018. Available at: [Accessed 03 May 2021].

35 Zichi, ’A European Fleet’, pp. 149-50.