The EU’s Mission is to fight human traffickers who have taken advantage of the current political situation in Libya to smuggle migrants from Africa to Europe, in exchange of large amounts of money.
The EUNAVFOR MED mission description states: “The mission core mandate is to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers, in order to contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean and prevent the further loss of life at sea”.
Despite the use of significant numbers of naval, search and rescue, intelligence and logistical assets, the recent criticisms like the ones received by the House of Lords, for example, shows us that for the time being only a few human traffickers were caught in the Area of Operations. Some will say that the reason for this is the absence of the criminals in question on the migrant boats, the use of secluded coves and the fact that the Libyan coastline cannot be entirely patrolled.
Until June of this year, the EU Mission had only been allowed to operate in International Waters, and is allegedly where the extension of the second phase of the Mission would be able to prove more effective thanks to the larger space of action approved by 2292, §4 (2016) UNSC Resolution. Being granted the ability to use “all necessary measures” to ensure international peace and security should help in the combatting of the criminal networks and smugglers, and so theoretically limit their ability of organising and undertaking dangerous and often deadly trips for paying migrants desiring to cross the Mediterranean. The operationalisation of this phase will show us how EUNAVFOR Med will effectively increase its strength.
While Operation Sophia has seen itself as the European military fighting ruthless criminal networks and smugglers, the criminals themselves probably see it as a hinderence at worse, or in fact an extra means of help in their illegal activities, at best.
Indeed, knowing that there are European Navy vessels in the Mediterranean and whose job is to specifically look for migrant boats sent by smugglers makes the traffickers job logistically easier and cheaper, since there is no need to fuel enough these boats to reach the Italian coast, nor to assure themselves that the boat need to reach the European coastline. Also, the attraction of the route into Europe to their human cargos becomes greater if they can assure them of rescue immediately outside of Libyan TTWs. This is a powerful incentive for desperate people to part with their life savings and which leads to over-crowded vessels to dangerous levels.
In many respects, Operation Sophia could therefore be seen as another opportunity for human traffickers to increase their profit margins on smuggling routes against the background of their normal risks of capture and detention.
While the above arguments could potentially be used against the action of the civil SAR fleet as well, it should be reminded that NGOs are engaging at sea to fulfill a gap and not to provide a solution to the present humanitarian crisis.
However, without a change to the current Libyan governance structure, the North African border will remain wide open to human trafficking business, and therefore become a convenient, but expensive escape door for those seeking a better life in Europe.
To be continued.
Melanie Glodkiewicz, Intern at Human Rights at Sea