Leo Varadkar defends Irish Navy role in EU mission

Operation aims to disrupt human trafficking and rescue refugees in the Mediterranean

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he "does not agree" with concerns expressed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) about Ireland's participation in the European Union's Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean.

MSF, which has two ships involved in migrant rescue, has warned that Ireland’s shift from humanitarian to what it describes as a “military focused” EU operation could “weaken dedicated search and rescue capacity”.

Mr Varadkar, who was speaking in Galway on the eve of the departure of Naval Service patrol ship LÉ William Butler Yeats to replace the LÉ Eithne in the Mediterranean, said he "totally respects" the work of MSF.

"I really respect it as a doctor and a politician . . . but I don't agree with it on this issue," Mr Varadkar said during a visit to the Galway Film Fleadh.


The EU’s Operation Sophia, which the Naval Service will now participate in, has a UN mandate and is supported by the Government and Dáil, he pointed out.

Human traffickers

"People from as far away as Afghanistan and southern Africa are travelling to Libya where there are human traffickers making an absolute fortune," Mr Varadkar said.

“So I think it is the right thing that we should disrupt that human trafficking, and also rescue refugees and migrants where they need that help,” he said.

Operation Sophia, initiated by the EU in June 2015, has a core mandate of identifying, capturing and disposing of vessels and other “enabling assets” used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers.

It has already been engaged in training members of the Libyan coastguard and its aim is to build good relations with the Tripoli administration which would lead to an invitation into Libyan territorial waters to pursue smugglers.

Cabinet approval for Naval Service transition to the EU mission was secured by Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe last Tuesday, and a motion was carried in the Dáil by 80 votes to 38 on Wednesday as part of the "triple lock" mechanism for approving Defence Force participation overseas.

Detention centres

Government, Fianna Fáil and Social Democrat TDs supported it, but a number of Opposition TDs questioned it, with Labour leader Brendan Howlin warning that Ireland could not contribute in any way to sending people back to Libyan detention centres .

A spokeswoman for Mr Kehoe has pointed out that Operation Sophia has rescued more than 36,600 people off the coast of Libya.

Naval Service patrol ships have rescued almost 16,000 people from the Mediterranean since 2015, when Ireland became involved in Operation Pontus, a bilateral arrangement with the Italian government.