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Greece wants the EU to stop boatloads of migrants before they even arrive in Europe.
In an interview with POLITICO, newly appointed Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis called on the EU to resume an operation that aims to stop migrants before they leave Libya, a common starting point for asylum seekers who they arrive in Europe.
The appeal comes as the Greek government rejects allegations of negligence after a shipwreck killed hundreds of migrants heading to Europe from Libya. Survivors said the Greek coastguard’s attempt to tow the vessel caused it to capsize and several average accounts they showed that the boat was stationary for hours before the coast guard intervened.
« These tragedies will continue to happen unless we stop sailings from Libya and other places on vessels that are not seaworthy, » Kairidis said. « Unfortunately there will be cases where it will simply be impossible to save human life all the time. »
One solution to avoid more tragedies, Kairidis said, is for the EU to resume « Operation Sophia, » an EU-led naval mission designed to disrupt smuggling routes in the Mediterranean that was officially shelved in 2020.
“We support the launch of an ‘Operation Sophia-plus’ to disrupt migrant smuggling routes from Libya,” Kairidis told POLITICO during his first visit to Brussels, where he met with EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.
« EU vessels are stationed in Libyan territorial waters with the agreement of the local government, which I hope they will accept, » he added.
The EU has not decided how to respond to the sinking of the Adriana. The European Parliament on Thursday backed a non-binding resolution urging the EU to set up a Europe-wide search and rescue operation for migrants. But some diplomats fear this would only encourage migrant departures from North Africa and fuel the business model of human traffickers.
Johansson declined to endorse this approach during a tense hearing on Wednesday.
However, the Greek proposal is slightly different from that of the Parliament. It would essentially aim to block the departure of boats, cutting off smuggling routes across the Mediterranean. 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 the rights of migrants.
Kairidis also defended the Greek coastguard against criticism that it ignored multiple offers of help from EU border agency Frontex.
The minister stressed that the Greek coastguard had rescued thousands of migrants in recent years and 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 now we shouldn’t bow to political pressure. »
Kairidis objected testimonials from survivors accusing Greek authorities of towing the migrant ship and eventually causing it to capsize. He stressed that these claims « are not definitive proof » and that the vessel could not have been towed without the consent of those on board.
The tragedy has increased pressure on Frontex head Hans Leijtens to halt 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 critically important to saving more lives ».
Separately, the minister defended the Greek government against allegations that it is taking a tough approach to migration on a par with Hungarian and Polish far-right leaders Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a centre-right conservative, recently won a resounding re-election victory.
« Mitsotakis is not Orbán, » Kairidis said. « Hungary and Poland don’t want Frontex and 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 take the pact over the edge, » he added.
Kairidis said that the far right and far left are simply weaponizing migration to « destroy the political centre, embodied by [French President Emmanuel] Macron and Mitsotakis”.