EU ministers have agreed to launch a sea and air mission that could in its later phases destroy vessels used by human traffickers, which have carried an estimated 1,800 migrants to their deaths in the Mediterranean this year.
An intelligence-gathering operation will herald the mission’s first phase, with the UK expected to offer drones and surveillance equipment as a partial riposte to calls for it to take in more refugees.
In later phases, hostile vessels suspected of harbouring migrants could be boarded, searched, seized or disposed of in Libyan territory or international waters – as long as a chapter 7 UN resolution to authorise the use of force to do so is obtained first.
The plan could be launched as soon as 25 June, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told a Brussels press conference.
“There is a clear sense of urgency as we all know that June is the beginning of summer and in this operation, seasons are important,” she said. “As summer comes, more people are travelling so we want to have the operation in place as soon as possible, if it is to deter the traffickers’ and smugglers’ organisations.”
Mogherini avoided mention of the “boots on the ground” option to destroy smugglers’ assets, outlined in an EU strategy paper revealed by the Guardianbefore the summit.
The mission’s rules of engagement have still to be thrashed out and one diplomat described the deployment of such forces as “the next step in terms of operational details”. The level of collateral damage considered acceptable would also be discussed after the mission was up and running, he said.
The operation will have its headquarters in Rome and be run by an Italian rear admiral, Enrico Credendino, with an initial year-long mandate.
Concerns about the militarisation of the migrants issue will probably be raised at the UN, though, with Libya already describing the mission as very worrying, citing concerns over its potential to mistakenly target fishermen’s boats.
Refugee rights groups fear that bombing the escape routes of people fleeing for their lives from Syria, Eritrea and west Africa – where most migrants begin their journeys – will simply lead to more deaths, away from the public spotlight.
“An unintended consequence of this mission is that it may even lead to more deaths,” said Michael Diedring, the secretary general of the European Council onRefugees and Exiles (ECRE). “If there is a shortage of vessels, even more people will be packed into them. There is even a possibility, given the desperate situation these people face, that they might try to construct their own boats.”
At present, smugglers’ vessels are often leased from local fishermen on a trip-by-trip basis by a wide variety of low-level criminals. The last-minute loading of human cargoes could prevent the timely targeting of such vessels.
Once loaded, the hulls of these boats are often crammed with people not visible from outside and Diedring said that there was a huge risk that boats could be targeted with people still on board.
“The solution to putting the smugglers out of business is to increase safe legal channels for migration,” he said. “It is ironic that people fleeing from war and persecution are being met with more of the same.”
Search and rescue operations have been stepped up in the Mediterranean since an estimated 800 people died when a ship sank off the Libyan coast in April. The UK has sent a Royal Navy flagship, HMS Bulwark, to join the operation and sent £800m in aid to help poor frontline countries such as Lebanon and Jordan deal with a refugee crisis of overwhelming proportions. About 1.5 million refugees have fled to the two small countries.
But the EU ended its Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission, despite warnings of the potential for an increase in tragedies at sea. Members currently remain at odds over a European commission proposal to more evenly share the number of migrants who arrive in Europe between EU member states.
Over the weekend, the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, joined the UK in opposing a quota measure which could stir anti-migrant feelings. “France has already done a lot,” he said.
Under the commission proposal, France would have been asked to take 14% of migrants who reached the EU’s shores, while 18% would be assigned to Germany, by far the largest recipient of migrants at present. Italy would have been asked to accept nearly 12% of the north African evacuees, and Spain 9%.
Source: The Guardian