The EU’s system of migration control underwent a shift in policy during 2017. After a high number of migrants travelled to Europe from Africa in 2014, in 2015 the EU launched Operation Sophia in international waters, with its headquarters in Rome. This operation was dependent on the Italian Navy, coastguard and other vessels saving migrants and bringing them to Italy and other southern European countries to have their requests for asylum processed.
Many NGO boats frequently rescued migrants from small boats after smugglers brought them short distances away from African coasts. These NGO boats cooperated with the Italian coastguard, navy and other vessels as they would pass migrants to them or take migrants directly to ports. But, as the number of migrants entering the EU rose, in 2016 and 2017 the EU shifted the emphasis to paying and training African countries to keep migrants away from Europe. This change to Operation Sophia included the EU training the Libyan coastguard and navy.
In light of this policy, the number of migrants arriving in Italy by sea fell from 181,436 in 2016 to 119,369 in 2017 and 23,370 in 2018. EU officials knew that the Operation Sophia shift away from sea rescues, in 2017, involved collaborating with and paying African militias and funding horrendous detention centres. They also knew this would result in migrant deaths, according to leaked documents from EU agencies.
Since 2018, Italy has asked other EU states to share the distribution of migrants and operation of sea patrols, and to open their ports for migrants to disembark, but they have mostly refused. Consequently, in March 2019, Operation Sophia was extended for six months, but with the end of maritime rescue patrols and more training for the Libyan coastguard. While the current Italian government has been in the spotlight for fining migrant rescuers, it is the EU that has most starkly abandoned migrants.