European Union nations on Monday approved a controversial naval operation to target human trafficking networks that facilitate travel for thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe — a journey that is not only illegal, but also fraught with danger.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she expected the mission to be fully launched next month after Britain, France, Italy and other nations pledge military equipment.
The first phase of the plan centers on intelligence gathering and surveillance of smuggling routes leading from Libya to southern Italy and Malta. After that, EU ships would start chasing and boarding the smugglers' boats. The 28-nation bloc is still seeking a U.N. resolution that would give them full legal protection as they destroy the smugglers' boats in a third phase of the plan.
Some 51,000 migrants — including more than 10,000 in recent weeks — have entered Europe this year by crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya, with 30,500 arriving in Italy. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 1,830 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean so far this year compared to 207 in the same period last year.
While EU countries recognize the need to act, some have been hesitant to do so without U.N. authorization — especially since the naval operation will have to cross into Libyan territory.
Mogherini flew to New York earlier this month to seek international support for a draft resolution by Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for the use of force to restore international peace and security.
Without U.N. authorization, the EU's naval mission, which will likely be headquartered in Italy, will not have the mandate to intervene in Libyan territorial waters and onshore in Libya to seize vessels.
"Nothing will happen without a U.N. mandate," said Austrian Defense Minister Gerald Klug.
Libya, however, has voiced opposition to the move.
Libya’s ambassador to the U.N., Ibrahim Dabbashi, told the BBC last week that he was worried about the EU’s plans.
“The Libyan government has not been consulted by the European Union. 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,” he said. Dabbashi also raised questions about how navy officials will distinguish between fishing boats and trafficking vessels.
Rights groups have also spoken out against the EU plan. Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa, Philip Luther, said last week that "introducing measures to tackle smugglers without providing safe alternative routes out for the people desperate to flee conflict in Libya, will not resolve the plight of migrants and refugees."
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, echoed Luther’s sentiment, saying the root of the problem lays in the homelands of the migrants, who enter Libya en route to their journey to Europe.
"Unless a solution is found to control the borders in Libya this problem will not be solved," Mezran added. "Migrants will be trapped in prison camps where they will face human rights violations."
EU officials said there is general agreement on the first phase of the plan, which centers on intelligence gathering and surveillance of smuggling routes leading to the south of Italy and Malta.
The operation becomes trickier as soon as the second phase — boarding and seizing smugglers’ vessels in international waters — comes into play, and when backing from a U.N. resolution would certainly help.
"If you are going to board vessels, you can do that now but you have to ask what flag the vessel has," said Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders. "It cannot be done automatically."
Though NATO has not yet been approached for help, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Western military alliance stands "ready to help if there is a request."
Stoltenberg said the alliance, 22 of whose member states also belong to the EU, would also help Libya's government with defense-capacity building "when the situation on the ground allows for that kind of cooperation."
Stoltenberg added that he strongly welcomes U.N. efforts in war-torn Libya to forge a government of national unity and achieve a cease-fire. Underscoring the need for action against the traffickers, Stoltenberg said "one of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists, also trying to hide, to blend in" on the vessels trying to cross over into Europe.
Also part of the EU’s plan to curb human trafficking is to take in 20,000 more refugees over the next two years. Despite the show of unity on naval action, the EU has showed increasing division on the plan for mandatory quotas for member states to take in refugees, with Spain now joining other major EU nations like France and Britain speaking out against it.
Al Jazeera and wire services