European leaders back naval mission to stem Mediterranean migration

The European Union is seeking UN approval for using military force against human traffickers in Libya. Critics say targeting vessels isn't a comprehensive response to the tide of asylum seekers. 

Adriana Sapone/AP
Migrants wait to be disembarked from the Italian Navy ship Espero, at the Reggio Calabria harbor, southern Italy, Saturday, May 16, 2015. The shipwreck off the coast of Libya last month galvanized the European Union to devise a strategy to try to stop human trafficking, which often brings thousands of migrants daily to southern Italy after they are rescued at sea.

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European leaders agreed on Monday to use naval forces to go after human trafficking networks that are sending tens of thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean from North Africa.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she expected the naval operation to begin next month ahead of the summer high season for migrant sailings.

"As summer comes, more people are traveling and I'd like to have the operation in place as soon as possible," Ms. Mogherini said, according to The Associated Press.

The program is intended to stop smugglers before or shortly after they leave the shores of Libya for southern Italy and Malta. EU forces would then return migrants to their ports of departure and destroy the boats used to transport them.

Ensuring widespread support for the strategy involved “delicate packaging and diplomacy,” given the sensitivity in some countries toward the use of military force, according to The New York Times. The 28-nation bloc is still seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution that would provide a legal basis for destroying the smugglers’ boats.

"The fundamental point is not so much the destruction of the vessels but it is the destruction of the business model of the traffickers," Mogherini said.

While Mogherini stressed the need to cooperate with officials in Libya – especially if European navies are to operate within its territorial waters – the collapse of its government makes that a difficult proposition.

Chris Morris, a Europe correspondent for BBC News, writes that “there will need to be an effort to disrupt the onshore operations of the smuggling gangs if the mission is to achieve its objectives.” He continues:

That could well involve the use of special forces, something that will not be advertised in advance. And there will be huge risks involved for the EU – political and military.

It's just that doing nothing is an even less attractive option.

The tougher stand against human smuggling comes amid a sharp spike in migration to Europe. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 1,830 migrants – many from the war-torn Middle East and parts of Africa – have died on the sea route this year compared to 207 in the same period last year. More than 10,000 have been rescued alive from the deadly waters.

Critics argue that the new plan does little to address the underlying causes of mass migration.

“It’s not clear to me that the ministers understand the complexities of migration dynamics involved,” Elizabeth Collett, the director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, told the Times. “Military operations in the Mediterranean are only really likely to have any impact as one very small piece in a far more comprehensive strategy to address smuggling.”

Julia O’Connell Davidson, a research fellow on modern slavery at the University of Nottingham, writes in an opinion article for The Guardian that any collateral damage caused by naval intervention would be inexcusable.

To attempt to crush it with military force is not to take a noble stand against the evil of slavery, or even against “trafficking”. There is no moral basis for the use of lethal force against peaceable women, men and children, including victims of torture, and those fleeing persecution and war …

Rather than sending in the military, Europe should resettle many more refugees, and dismantle the barriers to movement that have been put in the way of all but the most wealthy.

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