Mediterranean migrants crisis

Analysing the options.

Mediterranean migrants crisis: Is military force the solution?

By Jasmine Coleman

European leaders are scrambling to find a way of stemming the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean after a large spike in deaths drew public condemnation.

The most eye-catching of the draft proposals being discussed is the push for a military mandate to destroy boats used by people traffickers before they set out to sea.

The idea has the backing of Italy’s Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti, who told Italian TV: “The plans for military intervention are there.”

But would military action really work – and if not, what would?

Destroy the boats

The details of the EU’s proposals for a military mandate are unclear at this stage.

But its 10-point action plan said: “The positive results obtained with the Atalanta operation should inspire us.”

Gerry Northwood is the former head of operations for Operation Atalanta, a multi-national force first deployed in December 2008 to stop pirates off the coast of Somalia.

He told the BBC that using a military mandate to destroy boats before they leave would have “limited value”.

Boats are “cheap and plentiful” and easily replaced, he added.

And while we do not know what form a direct attack on the vessels might take, Mr Northwood, a former captain in the UK’s Royal Navy, said this approach could result in unwanted loss of life.

Hans Lucht, writer and senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, points out that a mandate from the EU – possibly also the UN – would be needed for any military activity.

The authorities in Libya have admitted to the BBC that they rarely stop traffickers, as the collapse of central government and the rise of Islamic State militants leave the country in chaos.

It may be a challenge to get some counties, especially Russia, to go along with a new intervention in the country, Mr Lucht says.

And destroying the boats would not necessary stop the trafficking.

“We know little about the smugglers. They don’t have a main office that you can walk into and arrest everybody,” says Mr Lucht.

“Reports show that criminal activity and traffic in illicit goods – not just human beings but also drugs, weapons and smuggled goods – have become widespread and have strong local and ethnic ties.

“You can’t just expect to hit one or two smuggling operations and then the whole thing goes away.”

Send them back

Earlier this week, Australian PM Tony Abbott urged Europe to follow his country’s lead, saying: “The only way you can stop the deaths is, in fact, to stop the boats.”

Australia detains all asylum seekers who arrive by boat, holding them in offshore processing camps.

Military vessels also intercept migrant boats, towing them back to the country they came from or sending asylum seekers back in inflatable dinghies or lifeboats.

The EU’s proposals suggest considering “options for an emergency relocation mechanism” and a “programme for rapid return”.

Australia’s approach has been hailed by some European politicians, but criticised by rights groups and the UN.

Paul Barrett, a former secretary of Australia’s defence department, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that returning vessels to Libya was very different from turning them back to countries such as Indonesia.

“If you turn around boats that are fleeing from Libya and send them straight back to Libya you’re injecting them straight back into the danger that they’ve fled,” he said.

Any operation would be obliged to observe the international legal principle of “non-refoulement” – meaning that people fleeing conflict or persecution are not sent back to a life-threatening place.

Meanwhile Gerry Northwood said his experience in Somalia showed that migrants were so not easily deterred, with the same people attempting a crossing a “third, forth, or fifth time around”.

Boost naval patrols

He said the main lesson from the Atalanta anti-piracy operation is the need for co-operation between countries, as well as with the commercial shipping sector.

Other proposals being debated in Brussels include significantly boosting the EU’s maritime patrol to help rescue migrants – something aid agencies have long been calling for.

Some EU countries have argued that such operations encourage more people to attempt the perilous journey.

But Mr Norwood said he backed the increase. “There is value in these patrols in terms of maintaining law and order on the high seas,” he said.

The only real solution to the problem, however, is to improve conditions ashore, while ensuring the criminal networks “do not have any targets”, he added.

For pirates off the Somali coast, this means protecting vulnerable ships. But in the Mediterranean it means working to stop the flow of migrants.

Let them in

The EU’s plans include supporting UN efforts to help form a stable government in Libya, and much emphasis has been put on the need to improve conditions in the countries the migrants come from.

The majority of migrants who arrived by sea in 2014 came from Syria, where a brutal civil war has raged for more than four years.

In 2013 Sweden announced that Syrians seeking asylum there would be granted permanent residency.

And the deaths of more than 800 people in the Mediterranean on Sunday has only served to highlight calls for countries to let more migrants in.

“The root cause of people getting on rickety boats or paying smugglers in the first place is that they have been legally barred from travelling by any other means,” says John Lee from the action group Open Borders.

“If EU countries let these people buy a plane ticket in the first place, you wouldn’t have the sort of deadly chaos we’re seeing now in the Mediterranean.”

European leaders facing economic pressures and concerns over immigration in their own countries are unlikely to transform their policies on this issue.

But Mr Lee argues that the problem will therefore remain.

“Ultimately if you prevent broad swathes of people from living in societies governed by safe and sane rule of law, simply because they weren’t lucky enough to be born into those societies, you are going to see civil disobedience to this arbitrary exclusion.”


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