Senior European officials today approved plans for an unprecedented military operation aimed at targeting Libyan people smugglers and destroying their boats.
EU foreign and defense ministers have been meeting in Brussels to iron out the finer details of a scheme which was expected to involve the deployment of warships, drones, and surveillance aircraft in the sea around Libya, and possibly even missions on the country's coast.
On Monday, the officials agreed terms on starting a naval force against the smugglers. This mission, however, will also hinge on UN approval. "Nothing will happen without a UN mandate," Gerald Klug, the Austrian defense minister, told Reuters.
The operation is scheduled to launch next month out of Rome and will involve three stages: intelligence gathering on smugglers, inspection and detection of boats, and the destruction of those vessels.
Countries that have already pledged to deploy warships include Germany, Britain, France, Spain, and Italy.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that part of the aim of Monday's meeting was to push the UN into taking that action. "Today the main point will be taking the decision to establish the EU operation at sea to dismantle the criminal networks that are smuggling people in the Mediterranean," she said. "I think that after we take the decision today it is more likely for the Security Council to take a resolution."
At the beginning of the session, Mogherini said that this was a chance for the assembled European ministers to devise "a concrete answer" to the immigration problems they were facing. She also said that they were looking for partnership with the Libyan authorities.
Any operation on Libyan land would involve receiving a UN Chapter VII resolution, something that Mogherini said they working to find a legal basis for. Meanwhile, the Libyan ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, told the BBC that he found the idea of the proposals concerning.
"The Libyan government has not been consulted by the European Union," he said. "They have left us in the dark about what their intentions are, what kind of military actions they are going to take in our territorial waters, so that is very worrying."
More than 1,800 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year. For many, the sea voyage represents only a small fraction of their total journey — some migrants travel for months before reaching Libya, as part of a desperate bid to reach Europe.
In an interview with the Polska the Times on Monday, European Council President Donald Tusk said that the EU was not able to accept all migrants attempting to make the journey there, and was going to have to develop a new policy on how to deal with them.
"I am realistic and I think that first of all we have to work out a new return policy, which would be a policy of sending them back."
He added: "In a responsible manner we can talk about welcoming only a defined group of immigrants… Those who say let's open the door widely are cynical since they know it is not possible."
In February this year, UNHCR said there were more than 18,700 Syrian refugees and asylum seekers in Libya, along with more than 4,600 Eritreans, 5,300 Palestinians, and nearly 2,400 Somalians.
Samer Haddadin, chief of the UNHCR mission in Libya, responded to the announcement of the new measures by saying "anything that is providing protection for refugees and solutions for them is welcome." However, Haddadin told VICE News: "Any measure that hinders the ability of a person who is in need of international protection should be avoided."
If the new mission goes ahead, Haddadin said that he believes asylum seekers and refugees must be aided through other measures such as "allowing them to reunite with their families, providing them with humanitarian visas, increasing the number of initiatives for them to get to these countries, along with dealing with the root causes for them," according to Haddadin. "There have to be more legal ways for people to get to safety," he added emphatically.
Haddadin said that he wasn't a technical expert, but he didn't think that destroying the boats was going to be effective, and at most would only be a "temporary" solution.
He continued by saying that there was no chance of any European action conducted by the coast actually halting the steady flow of migrants into Libya. "A person who's leaving from one of the sub-Saharan countries thinking that he or she is going to be able to cross the sea, do you think that this person cares about any measures if he or she has assurance from the smugglers and that person is already in Libya after crossing several countries?"
Former British navy chief Admiral Alan West told the BBC that he believes the plan is "feasible" and "not too high risk." West continued: "I think we could stop the flow of people trying to get out into the Mediterranean — that would save lives and it will dry up the funding to these dreadful people smugglers and I think within a matter of weeks they will be looking for other ways of achieving it."
However, he too thought the measure might not solve the overall problem.
In April, a Libyan people smuggler who went by the name of Hajj spoke to the Guardian about the sources of the boats smugglers used — many of which were ordinary fishing vessels purchased specifically for the trips.
"One of the reasons why [Libyan] fish is expensive is the lack of fishing boats going out to sea to fish. They're all being used by smugglers," he said.
Mentioning the possibility of EU action, he continued: "I'm not threatened. It's been happening for years, these promises and threats. They'll move on. What are they going to do, put two frigates here? Two warships? In Libyan waters? That's an invasion."
However, the smuggler did berate those who rescue migrants yet leave abandoned adrift. "Why do they leave the boats intact?" asked Hajj. "That helps us, because all we have to do is go out to sea and tow them back to shore."
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