BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union officials lamented Wednesday a move by member countries to recall their ships taking part in an EU naval mission patrolling the Mediterranean Sea for migrants attempting the dangerous water crossing from North Africa.
The EU's Operation Sophia works to reduce migrant-smuggling, trains the Libyan coast guard and enforces an arms embargo on Libya. It has rescued almost 49,000 people trying to reach Europe in often unseaworthy boats, according to the EU..
European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said that "without naval assets, the operation will not be able to effectively implement its mandate."
Italy commands Sophia but the anti-migrant government refuses to allow EU ships or the vessels private aid groups have looking out for migrants at risk of drowning or fatal dehydration to disembark in Italian ports, complicating the mission.
EU countries agreed in principle to renew Sophia's mandate for six months. For now, they want to recall the participating ships, but not aircraft. A formal decision must be made by March 31.
A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said Berlin would like the mission to continue and remains ready to contribute ships if the conditions are right.
"In particular, we would wish for and have been working at all levels for months to find an equitable mechanism for disembarking people saved from distress at sea," the spokesman, Christofer Burger, told reporters in Berlin.
Aid group Doctors Without Borders accused European countries of being "irresponsible and reckless" in withdrawing the ships.
"For the vulnerable people trying to flee Libya, their choices are increasingly limited to being stuck in detention centers or dying at sea," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, a humanitarian affairs adviser for the group.
She said Libya 's coast guard has in the past failed to respond to distress calls and alleged that rescued migrants are taken back to Libya and held in "inhumane detention centers."
"It shows again that the EU considers it acceptable to let people die at sea as deterrence for migration," she said.