Could military action help solve Europe's Mediterranean refugee crisis?

Though striking the refugee-smugglers might briefly disrupt the flow of migrants from Libya to Italy, it doesn't address what's causing the crisis in the first place.

Francesco Malavolta/AP
Rescued migrants disembark from an Italian Navy vessel in the harbor of Augusta, Sicily, southern Italy, on Wednesday. The European Union is weighing concrete, robust steps to stop the deadly tide of migrants on smugglers' boats in the Mediterranean, including military strikes against smugglers in Libya.

After the worst ever tragedy among refugees in the Mediterranean, in which an estimated 750 perished, locked inside the hold of a boat that capsized last week, European leaders vowed to tackle head-on the smuggling gangs in Libya.

Now, as tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers attempt to cross the Mediterranean in decrepit fishing boats and rubber dinghies, the continent's leaders are mulling drastic action – military strikes on the traffickers who organize the voyages.

But despite the integral role of the people-smugglers in facilitating the risky, even deadly, trips across the Mediterranean, military action against them and their boats and storehouses is not likely to solve the humanitarian crisis, analysts say. Rather, it will only increase the danger to refugees, either by exposing them directly to the dangers of combat or by trapping them within the chaos of Libya's civil war.

“As long as legal and safe channels of access to the EU are not established, these people will continue to brave the sea in search of protection and a better life, and the bodies will continue to pile up on Europe’s border,” says Karim Lahidji, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, a human rights group representing 178 nongovernmental organizations from nearly 120 countries.

'Smash the gangs'

The smugglers are acting with impunity all along the coast of Libya, which has descended into chaos since the toppling of its long-time dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, in 2011. From Libya, the traffickers send their human cargo across the Mediterranean, with Italy’s geographical proximity to North Africa meaning it is the primary destination.

The civil war in Syria, unrest in Afghanistan and Palestine, conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, and tyrannical regimes in countries such as Eritrea are forcing millions of people to flee their countries, with many prepared to risk everything, even their lives, in order to reach Europe.

Last year 170,000 migrants arrived on Italian shores from Libya and so far this year around 25,000 have made the journey. But some 1,750 died in the attempt in the past few weeks, including 750 alone in last weekend's tragedy.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has been given the task of drawing up concrete plans to "identify, capture and destroy" boats used by the trafficking groups.

She will travel to New York this week to try to garner support from the United Nations on such a course of action and European leaders will reconvene next month to further discuss military measures.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said a priority should be to “smash the gangs” operating in Libya. He promised to deploy to the Mediterranean the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark, which carries helicopters and Royal Marine commandos, as well as two patrol vessels.

Other countries, including France, Germany, Ireland, and Sweden, also committed ships and helicopters to a new, expanded search and rescue operation.

Dangers of military action

But the tough talk about capturing and destroying boats has raised all sorts of questions about the practicality – not to mention the legality – of military action. EU leaders did not spell out exactly what “smashing the gangs” would entail, but it could take the form of covert raids by special forces launched from submarines and surface ships, or strikes by drones operating from Sicily.

Critics say that drone strikes could accidentally kill innocent people, including refugees. Smugglers typically gather them together in abandoned farms, warehouses, and private homes along the Libyan coast, prior to taking them to the nearest beach and putting them on board boats.

It would also be difficult to distinguish between fishing boats about to be used to transport migrants across the sea, and genuine fishing boats owned by innocent fishermen.

Commando raids would also be highly problematic – the smugglers are well-armed and would almost certainly shoot back if fired upon.

Libya – which is split between two rival governments, one in Tripoli and the other in the eastern city of Tobruk – said any such attacks would be regarded as an act of war. “Taking out boats without our permission would be considered a declaration of war against Libya,” said Abdel-Qader Huweily, a lawmaker with Libyan Dawn, the administration which is based in Tripoli.

“Who can guarantee that the weapons won't also kill nearby people? You can destroy all the boats, but the problem of migrants fleeing wars, persecutions and misery will still exist,” says the Vatican's Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, the head of the Pontifical Council on Migrants. "Bombing the boats is useless. Desperate people will keep finding new ways to flee... they will make more boats, or flee on land."

Dealing with the root cause

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon signaled the depth of the divide in the international community, in an interview published before today's scheduled appearance with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Ms. Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, on board an Italian ship, the San Giusto, as a gesture of "solidarity" with migrants. While the Italians and the EU are calling for aggressive military measures against the traffickers in Libya, the head of the UN said there could be "no military solution" to the tragedies in the Mediterranean.

"What is crucial is to have a global approach that takes into account the roots of the problem, the security and human rights of migrants and refugees, such as having immigration channels that are legal and regular," Ban said in an interview with Italy's La Stampa daily.

“The overwhelming focus on combating smuggling ignores the fact that the vast majority of the people coming through this route are seeking protection," says Peter Balleis, the international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, a Catholic charity which operates in nearly 50 countries. "It is the lack of protection and access to regular migration channels which fuels smuggling.”

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, says the EU proposals to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats would leave tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Libya, where they are often physically abused by traffickers.

Italian authorities said last week that they believe that up to a million asylum seekers may be in Libya, waiting to cross the Mediterranean.

“If you destroy the boats so that migrants cannot leave, they are then stuck in Libya, which is in crisis,” says Mr. Di Giacomo, as he watched 220 mostly sub-Saharan migrants disembark in the port of Catania in Sicily after being rescued by the Italian navy.

“Migrants know they could die while crossing the Sahara or in one of the boats, but they are surprised at the level of violence they experience in Libya. They tell us the situation in Libya is like hell.”

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