Migrant crisis: Irish navy rescues 109 off Libyan coast

Small boats are pictured attending to migrants on top of an inflatable boat they are loaded on to. Image copyright Irish defence forces
Image caption It was the LÉ William Butler Yeats' first rescue operation since it joined the EU's Operation Sophia to tackle the Mediterranean migrant crisis

An Irish navy vessel rescued 109 migrants off Libya's coast on Sunday, following a request from the Italian Maritime Rescue Co-Ordination Centre.

The LÉ William Butler Yeats took four hours to rescue the migrants off Tripoli, before providing food and medical treatment.

The rescued migrants were then transferred to the Italian Coast Guard.

It was the new vessel's first humanitarian search and rescue mission since being deployed on 14 July.

On the same day a government motion was passed in the Dáil (Irish parliament) to allow the Irish Defence Forces to join in on Operation Sophia in response to the EU's ongoing migrant crisis.

The multilateral EU navy operation was set up in 2015, aimed at targeting vessels to stop gangs from human trafficking, mainly through Libya.

Opposition politicians criticised the move, saying the the change of status had implications for Irish neutrality.

Image copyright Irish defence forces
Image caption Over 100 migrants were crowded onto the small inflatable boat

Irish operations in the area, under Operation Pontus, have been based on a bilateral arrangement with the Italian government, saving almost 16,000 migrants in the southern Mediterranean during the last two years.

Sunday's rescue was part of this operation, but the LÉ William Butler Yeats's commander said the crew was "totally prepared" if it needed to switch to the new operation mid-mission.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was forced to defend the change in Irish strategy, after Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) criticised Ireland's participation in the operation it describes as "military focused".

"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 was quoted as saying by The Irish Times.

"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."

The EU's Operation Sophia began in June 2015, but doubt has been cast on how effective it has been in disrupting people-smuggling across the Mediterranean.

More than 94,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy so far this year, according to the UN. But more than 2,370 people have died trying.

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