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Europe Launches Naval Operation to 'Attack Smugglers' in Response to Migrant Crisis

The first phase of the plan to dismantle Mediterranean migrant trafficking networks begins next week, but later phases still require approval from Libya and the UN Security Council.
Pierre Longeray
Paris, FR
Photo via Flickr/EUNAVFOR

VICE News is closely watching the international migrant crisis. Check out the Open Water blog here.

At a meeting Monday in Luxembourg, European Union foreign affairs ministers announced plans to launch a naval operation intended to dismantle migrant trafficking networks throughout the Mediterranean — primarily between Libya and Italy. Named EUNAVFOR Med (European Union Naval Force in the Mediterranean), the first deployments begin next week, around July 1.


"I want to be clear, the targets aren't the immigrants, but those profiting off of their lives and, all too often, their deaths," Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, said on Monday morning.

During a brief press conference, Mogherini announced the operation would be launched in three stages, saying the ultimate goal is "attacking smugglers and traffickers, and dismantling their business model."

EUNAVFOR Med's first phase will take effect in "several days," according to Mogherini. It will consist of recon work carried out by drones, satellites, planes, and patrolling submarines. Their main goal is to identify smuggling networks. This preliminary phase will be done in international waters, off the Libyan coast, and will be directed by Italian Admiral Enrico Credendino.

Related: Fortress Europe: The Billion Dollar Machine That Keeps Migrants at Bay

The mission's second stage will be to intercept the largest ships that the smugglers use to transport migrants over open water, as Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French minister of defense, explained Sunday on radio network Europe 1. The immigrants themselves are stowed on small makeshift rafts made of wood or plastic, and the smugglers often abandon them on the high seas. The migrants then face three prospects: Make their way to European coasts, be rescued, or die in the water.

The third phase of EUNAVFOR Med will be an intervention in Libya's territorial waters and near the country's coast. The plan is to make the smugglers' ships unusable, dismantle their networks, and to bomb their hideouts on the coast, according to a European representative quoted by AFP. Once they are close to the Libyan coast, the EU force will also attempt to apprehend traffickers and smugglers.


'We are aware that this operation is not a solution to the crisis, but merely a part of far larger response.'

For now, only the initial recon phase will be put into action. Phases two and three, which will require the use of force in Libya's territorial waters, will only begin after Libyan authorities give their approval, a prerequisite needed to present a resolution to the UN Security Council to enable the rest of the program.

Gaining a UN resolution will be difficult for two reasons. First, Libya is currently unable to present a request for European intervention to the UN because the country does not have a national unity government. Discussions are underway in Skhirat, Morocco, to bring together such a party, but nothing has been done yet. The second obstacle is the potential for permanent Security Council members Russia and China to veto the resolution.

Related: Drowning for Freedom: Libya's Migrant Jails

Diplomatic tensions have also increased at the other end of the migrants' path. On Monday, Natacha Bouchart, the mayor of Calais in northern France — where thousands of migrants hoping to illegally cross into the UK are gathered — called for creating a "diplomatic incident" between Paris and London so that Britain would be implicated in the migrant issue. According to Bouchart, the UK "won't give a cent" for migrants, but she has not specified what exactly she hopes to see in terms of help or support. The UK has already invested in Calais, particularly in port protection systems to prevent immigrants from attacking boats.


General Patrick de Rousiers, chairman of the Military Committee of the European Union and a representative of the EUNAVFOR Med mission, reportedly said Monday that the naval operation is only one part of the solution to the migrant problem. "We will conform to international laws, and we are aware that this operation is not a solution to the crisis, but merely a part of far larger response," de Rousiers said, according to a Maltese newspaper.

The estimated cost of the EUNAVFOR Med operation is 11.82 million euros, according to the EU's report. It will last 12 months and take place in collaboration with Interpol, Europol, and Frontex, the European border management agency that is already actively rescuing stranded migrants in the Mediterranean. A previous EUNAVFOR operation — dubbed "Atalanta" — was launched in 2008 to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

Related: Tucked Beneath a Paris Nightclub, Migrants in a Tent City Try to Survive

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray

Photo via Flickr/EUNAVFOR