The European Union is seeking UN approval to use military action to target smuggling networks which are operating out of Libya. The proposal is in response to the increasing number of deaths in the Mediterranean; crossing the Mediterranean from Libya has become the most popular route for migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, and these journeys often end in tragedy. But is military action the answer?
Last week, the Guardianreported that the EU plan includes a co-ordinated air and naval campaign in the Mediterranean and in Libyan territorial waters, and potentially a ground operation. According to theIndependent, the plan states that vessels such as the Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark will be stationed in Libyan waters, while helicopter gunships would be dispatched to "neutralise" the ships used by traffickers.
The military action proposed by the EU will not be a straightforward mission. Firstly, it relies on the smuggling network being visible and separate from civilian life. In reality, the smugglers are not a cohesive or traceable organisation. The vessels used to take people across the Mediterranean are also not clearly visible. They tend to be fisherman's boats, recruited on a trip-by- trip basis and their use for trafficking only becomes clear once they are loaded with people. Those that deal with business by the ports or drive the boats – where the smuggling networks will be targeted – are minor players or other refugees; the people smuggling kingpins undoubtingly reap their profits far away from the water. The operation also faces numerous legal and political hurdles, including the challenge of securing the support of two sets of rival Libyan authorities.
The EU plan could also prove detrimental to Libya. The country descended into chaos after long-time dictator Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown and it now has no centralised authority but rather a variety of militias loosely aligned to the two very broad camps in this conflict- the self-declared authority based in Tripoli and the internationally recognised government in Tobrouk.
Smugglers are a symptom of this much bigger problem.
UN-mediated talks are underway which could end in a peace deal between the warring factions, but UN authorisation of the EU plan, which has been criticised by Libya's UN ambassador, would likely jeopardise them. The current situation in Libya is largely blamed on the international community, with states who supported the overthrow of Gaddafi being reluctant to support nation building after his departure. Additional interventions into Libyan affairs risk further destabilising the country. An end to the conflict and concrete plans to support nation building in the aftermath, would more effectively clamp down on the smuggling trade and be beneficial for both Libya and its citizens.
The plan could also be simply ineffective in both crushing the smuggling networks and preventing deaths. There are many routes across the Mediterranean to the EU. The main routes include from Turkey to Greece; from Tunisia and Libya to Italy and Malta (the Central Mediterranean route); from Morocco to mainland Spain by sea, as well as to the Spanish enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla, by land and sea (the Western Mediterranean route); and from the West African coast to the Canary Islands. Less common ones include sea routes from Egypt to Crete and Italy, from Algeria to Sardinia, and from Algeria to Spain.
The popularity of each route has faded in and out over the years. For example, the sea route from Albania to Italy, which was an important route especially in the late 1990s, no longer plays a very significant role. These changes occur in response to the strategies developed by border agencies to prevent this kind of illegal entry. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) listed some of the strategies which have appeared over the years: Italy's naval blockade in the Adriatic in the late 1990s; Spain's high-tech surveillance system called Sistema de Vigilancia Exterior (SIVE) and its cooperation with West African countries in the late 2000s; Italy's controversial pushbacks of migrants to Libya in 2009 and the razor-wire fences in Ceuta and Melilla. All have succeeded in shifting trends, but not in stopping the people smuggling network.
The strategies have instead pushed people to embark on more dangerous journeys. Prior to 1990, according to IOM, there were a much lower number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean and this may be related to the fact it was much easier to reach Europe by regular means. The EU plan will result in much of the same; dangerous re-routes, even poorer quality boats as the likelihood of them not returning increases – and ultimately more deaths at sea. Aside from this, the EU strategy paper on the mission summarised by the Guardian admitted that there could be a high risk of "collateral damage", including the loss of innocent lives, as a result of the proposed actions.
The EU's response to the tragic deaths is also, from a humanist point of view, plain wrong. It fails to tackle the root causes of why people risk their lives taking the journey. The majority of those embarking on boats from Libya to the Italian island of Lampeduso are either Syrian or Eritrean. In Syria, the civil war is still ongoing and in Eritrea, human rights abuses and poverty are systematic. EU governments have been unable and/or unwilling to end the conflict in Syria or pressure the Eritrean government to end these abuses. Meanwhile, they are making escaping via official routes impossible. To even place a claim for asylum in an EU country, you must be physically present, for Syrians and Eritreans tight visa restrictions make this an unlikely scenario. It leaves them with one option – a rickety, overloaded boat across the Mediterranean.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.