Since the start of the year, in excess of 130,000 refugees have crossed to Europe from the North African coast. On some days, 20 boats set sail from Libya — the most common setting-off point — and many of them are overcrowded and barely seaworthy. More than 2,700 people have drowned.
In the absence of a consensus about how best to share the burden of this massive humanitarian crisis, discussion in the European halls of power has mainly focused on how to stop the flow of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
This week, a new stage in that plan started, as the EU began a military operation to intercept boats smuggling migrants from Libya. Known as Operation Sophia, the mission will deploy warships which will be able to board, search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for people smuggling. A military response was first mooted earlier this year when EU leaders met to discuss the crisis. Among the options on the table in May was an air and naval campaign to bust smuggling networks, and even a proposal for a ground invasion of Libya.
Until now, the EU has focused on surveillance and rescue operations. The first phase of the operation was launched in June, with the EU using naval surveillance to detect smugglers’ boats and monitor smuggling patterns between Libya and Italy and Malta.
There are obvious limits to the EU’s plan. Firstly, this is not the only route into Europe. Others, mainly Syrian refugees fleeing the country’s civil war, are travelling overland to Turkey before a shorter journey by sea to Greece, which is part of the European Union. From there, they travel on to central or northern European countries, with Germany currently the top destination. When the proposal for naval action to bust Libyan smuggling networks was discussed in May, Libya was the primary route into Europe. Now, more people are travelling via Turkey; the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece is arguably more relevant than the stretch of the Mediterranean north of Libya where the EU mission is focusing.
Secondly, there are various logistical issues. The EU’s warships will have to stick to international waters. That means that they must stay 12 nautical miles away from the Libyan coast. The EU hopes that eventually it will be able to move to a third, more aggressive phase of the operation, and actually act within Libya’s territorial waters. That, though, would require permission either from the UN Security Council or from Libya’s government (a complicated matter in itself given the state of near anarchy in the country and the fact that both of Libya’s parallel governments have said that they reject foreign intervention).
This is an obvious problem given that smuggling networks generally operate within Libya’s maritime borders. People smugglers tend to load up the boats in Libyan waters and then leave most people to make the rest of the journey alone, particularly if they are in cheap rubber dinghies. Some boats – those that smugglers want to hang onto for future journeys – might be crewed by some lower status members of the network, but it is unlikely that by raiding vessels on international water, the EU’s forces are going to capture anyone with any serious power or influence.
A third issue is that the EU has been vague about what exactly the mission will entail, and what difference it will make in practice. A spokesperson told the Guardian that boats full of migrants will essentially be treated in the same way as they are at present, with passengers taken to Italy and any smugglers apprehended on board presented to the Italian police.
Western politicians speak of “smashing” Libya’s people smuggling networks; the rhetoric fundamentally misunderstands the nature of these groups. There is no single organisation with a clear hierarchy, or even with easily identifiable vessels. Many journeys are made on rubber dinghies which are easily obtainable and might not be retrieved by the smugglers. Others, such as wooden fishing vessels, might be hired from a local owner for the day. Accessing the key players in this trade is complicated and is certainly not something that can be done simply by apprehending boats at sea.
If the past few years are anything to go by, the numbers of migrants attempting the crossing will now fall for a few months over the winter. That means it is not until next spring that the impact of the EU mission will be seen. Even if it does reduce the number of people making the journey from Libyan shores, experience shows that they will simply find other routes. These are desperate people who feel they have nothing to lose. As it is, the stepping up of the EU naval response seems to be more about appearing to be doing something than actually tackling the problem in any effective way. The warships will keep appearances up, but they won’t solve the refugee crisis.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.