This year, over 560,000 refugees have risked their lives and crossed the Mediterranean Sea to escape violent conflicts in the Middle East and north Africa. This high demand for sea passage has led human traffickers to exploit the situation by overcrowding refugees in boats, some of which have capsized and killed passengers. At the end of August, the United Nations Refugee Agency estimated 2,500 such refugees have died trying to reach Europe. The International Organization for Migration estimate is nearly 3,000.
Wednesday, the European Union began a new effort to curb human trafficking of refugees in the Mediterranean. Named “Operation Sophia” after the baby born aboard a rescue ship to a Somali woman in August, the operation will allow naval vessels to stop, seize, and search any boats suspected of trafficking.
Search-and-rescue operations have been the EU’s focus in the past, but Operation Sophia aims to “prevent the further loss of life at sea” by “disrupting the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Mediterranean,” said a European Union statement.
Operation Sophia is the second phase in the EU’s crackdown on trafficking. The first phase, known previously as EUNAVFOR Med, was essentially an intelligence-gathering operation designed to identify and track smuggling networks, primarily along the Libya-Italy route.
“The ships contributed to save more than 3,000 migrant lives performing several rescues at sea and, following our activities, 16 suspected smugglers and traffickers have been arrested by the Italian authorities,” the European Union's diplomatic service reported.
Operation Sophia does have some limitations though. Rescue ships must stick to international waters, at least 12 nautical miles away from the Libyan coast, reports the BBC.
Six warships are currently on board – the Italian flagship “Cavour”, two German ships, one British frigate, one French ship, and one Spanish ship – as well as seven helicopters and planes. An additional 3 vessels from the Belgian and Slovenian navies are expected to join the operation in the coming weeks, reports Defense News.
With UN Security Council or Libyan approval, the EU would eventually move to a third phase allowing operations within Libya's own territorial waters.
“It's not immediately clear whether or not six warships, together with support helicopters and drones, will make a practical difference to the number of journeys begun by smugglers and migrants,” says the BBC’s James Reynolds.
Similarly, Thierry Tardy, a senior analyst at the EU's Institute for Security Studies, wrote in a briefing last week, "There is real uncertainty on whether the operation will ever be able – for either legal or political reasons – to get to the core of its mandate," reported CNN.
“The general reluctance to engage in coercive action on the part of most EU member states are all reasons that -- individually or collectively -- would make the full implementation of the operation's mandate difficult or simply impossible," Mr. Tardy said.