When the world was confronted with a sudden uptick in piracy in the waters off the coast of Somalia seven years ago, the United Nations Security Council authorized the use of force to take on the bandits.
With crucial international-trade shipping lanes threatened, NATO countries and regional partners sent warships to patrol and to confront the pirates. The scourge, while not fully removed, was substantially reduced.
Now the European Union, faced with an unprecedented crisis of migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean Sea, is considering similar extraordinary measures to address its migrant problem. The Europeans are seeking a use-of-force authorization from the Security Council that would give EU countries the sanction to destroy the boats that smugglers are using to ferry thousands of Syrians and sub-Saharan Africans to southern Europe. EU officials have said only identified smuggling vessels with no passengers on them would be targeted.
The hurdles to getting the world’s sign-off on the use of force appear to be only mounting: Some authorities in a divided and collapsing Libya – the departure point for most of the migrants setting sail for southern European shores – have declared that any military operations in Libyan territorial waters would be considered an act of war.
But on Tuesday, the UN’s top refugee official released new figures estimating that more than 100,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year.
The continuing crisis has EU officials grasping for extraordinary measures – although European diplomats at the UN suggested last week that the effort to get a use-of-force resolution through the Security Council was on hold pending Libyan consent.
But not everyone is convinced the use of force is the answer.
Blasting to smithereens vessels that on non-smuggling days might just be used for fishing or other legitimate pursuits presents the EU with all kinds of potential public-relations pitfalls, some regional security experts say.
“I get that the EU countries are frustrated with the situation they’re facing, but I’m not sure how an essentially kinetic operation solves it, while the chances are there of only making it worse,” says Michael Desch, co-director of the International Security Program at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Boats are often dual-use, so how are you going to figure out that what’s used as a fishing boat one day is going to be used to smuggle migrants the next? And that’s not to mention,” he adds, “the risk of a very bad mishap where you misidentify a vessel and hit one with human cargo.”
Officials at the UN say they are “worried” by the prospect of force being used to address what is in large part a refugee crisis. EU officials have said it goes without saying that only vessels with no passengers would be targeted. But as one UN official says, the risks of tragic mistakes are considerable.
“The concern here is that there could be shelling or sinking of a boat that turns out to be carrying civilians, perhaps hidden out of sight,” says the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about what he described as a “delicate” topic. “From the secretary-general’s [Ban Ki-moon] standpoint, the priority is to put the safety of the migrants and refugees first.”
Tuesday’s report from the UN refugee official, however, points to the depth of the problem. It found that 54,000 migrants reached Italy between January and May, with another 48,000 entering Greece over the same period. Nearly 1,800 would-be migrants have drowned at sea this year.
The numbers are not abating, with officials reporting the arrival last weekend of another 6,000 “irregular” migrants in Italy alone.
The influx of migrants – mostly from Syria but also in significant numbers from Afghanistan, Iraq, and some sub-Saharan African countries – is overwhelming services in the mostly small island communities where they are being housed. The crisis has touched off a sharp debate across the EU over how to fairly distribute the burden of accommodating the migrants across the Union’s 28 member states.
That is leading to the consideration of extraordinary measures. Action against the smugglers and their ships could be effective, says Gartenstein-Ross, who recently completed a study for the Dutch government on North African smuggling routes.
“Among other things, taking more of these boats out of service is going to drive up the cost of what is essentially a commercial enterprise,” he says. “If the conditions are such that this activity is no longer cost-effective, that’s going to drive people out of business.”
UN officials and some regional experts say the real answer is for a legitimate Libyan government to reestablish authority over Libyan ports and territorial waters. But no one sees that happening soon.
“Libya is the reason this is an issue – full stop,” says dr. Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies, with expertise in both North Africa and Somalia.
Just as it was Somalia’s decline into a failed state that allowed pirates to flourish off its coast, Libya’s similar deterioration has opened up the country’s ports and waters to the high-profit business of human trafficking, Gartenstein-Ross says.
“The ideal of course is to fortify Libya’s borders, but the chance of that at the moment is zero, and the reality is the smugglers are operating unchecked,” he says. The EU might prefer to work with a Libyan government, “but with a severe civil war raging, that is not an option,” he adds. “The two major factions are much more dedicated to fighting each other than to doing anything about the migrant crisis.”
The UN is mediating talks aimed at reaching a power-sharing arrangement between Islamist factions controlling Tripoli and most of the west of the country, and the internationally recognized, anti-Islamist parliament in control of most of the east. On Tuesday, representatives of the eastern-based parliament walked out of the negotiations, accusing the UN envoy leading the talks of bowing to the Islamists’ demands.
With prospects dim for reestablishing order in Libya, the EU feels it must do something. But Dr. Desch of Notre Dame cautions that the migrant crisis is bigger than a few smuggling boats.
“This is a Hail Mary pass, really, an unpalatable approach to a very big mess,” he says. “It may be the best they can do under the circumstances, but disabling boats in ports is certainly no silver bullet.”