Argument

Fortress Europe Shouldn’t Point Its Guns at Libya

Proposed plans for an EU military intervention to stop people smugglers in Libya aren't just cruel -- they're dangerous.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY KAOUTHER LARBI
A member of the Tunisia's national guard stops a fishing boat in the sea bordering Tunisia and Libya as they check vessels for illegal migrants trying to reach Europe on May 5, 2015 off the coast of Tunisia's southeast port of Zarzis. Already on high alert along the border because of the chaos and security problems that plague neighbouring Libya, Tunisian authorities are now faced with responding to a growing number of distress calls off the coast as increasing number of immigrants are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in hope of reaching Europe.  AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID        (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY KAOUTHER LARBI A member of the Tunisia's national guard stops a fishing boat in the sea bordering Tunisia and Libya as they check vessels for illegal migrants trying to reach Europe on May 5, 2015 off the coast of Tunisia's southeast port of Zarzis. Already on high alert along the border because of the chaos and security problems that plague neighbouring Libya, Tunisian authorities are now faced with responding to a growing number of distress calls off the coast as increasing number of immigrants are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in hope of reaching Europe. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

Four years after NATO helped unseat Muammar Qaddafi, European military forces could be set to return to Libya. The mission, this time, is humanitarian intervention in reverse: refusal, rather than responsibility, to protect. The EU is drawing up plans for armed action to prevent some of the world’s most desperate people from some of the world’s worst regimes and conflicts fleeing across the Mediterranean to find sanctuary in Europe. And official EU documents released by WikiLeaks earlier this week show that, as well as being immoral in conception, the proposed military action could wind up being a disaster in practice.

With legal routes for seeking asylum in Europe being systematically closed off, thousands of people trying to escape war, oppression, and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have resorted to crossing the Mediterranean in dangerously flimsy or overloaded craft provided by people smugglers. The problem, which has been building for some time, escalated sharply after Italy, under pressure from EU governments, shut down an effective search-and-rescue program last year. Over a thousand migrants died in one single disastrous week in April — equal to almost a third of the death toll for the whole of 2014 — forcing the issue back into Europe’s public conversation

In Brussels, the response to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe was to begin drawing up plans for military action to identify, capture, and destroy the boats before they could leave Libya. Earlier this week, WikiLeaks released EU documents detailing the official military advice and recommendations. The documents do not contain clear operational specifics, but an earlier strategy paper seen by The Guardian describes an air and naval campaign in the Mediterranean and in Libyan territorial waters, utilizing “a broad range of air, maritime and land capabilities” potentially including “boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units.” (Any suggestion of boots on the ground was later denied by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.) Together with what we already know about the proposals, and the environment in which the action will take place, the contents of the latest leaked documents show just how dangerous and misconceived these plans actually are.

The documents describe an intervention targeting smugglers’ vessels. But as The Guardian’s Patrick Kingsley reported from the Libyan coast earlier this month, no such permanent fleet exists. Rather, smugglers hire or purchase boats from private individuals as and when required. Only when these boats begin to load up with hundreds of passengers does it become clear that they are being used for an attempted crossing, and by that point the leading figures organizing the smuggling operations would likely not be aboard. Military action under these circumstances could lead to the deaths of many innocent people and the arrest of no one of any consequence. And there is little evidence in the latest leaked documents that this problem has been given serious consideration.

The earlier strategy paper acknowledged that “Boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.” But the latest leaked documents show no sign that officials are given pause by such possibilities, beyond noting “that preservation of human life at sea is a legal obligation.” The previously identified “high risk” strategy appears therefore to be deemed preferable to the prospect of migrants and refugees from places like Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan making it safely to Europe.

By no means do the dangers of the EU’s proposed program end there. The EU military advice mentions — but does not dwell on — the fact that the Islamic State and other militias will be in the vicinity of any European operations. As the earlier strategy paper notes “action taken ashore could be undertaken in a hostile environment …. [given] the existence of heavy military armaments (including coastal artillery batteries) and military-capable militias [which] present a robust threat to EU ships and aircraft operating in the vicinity.” It is hard to imagine that these groups will stand by while European militaries operate on their turf, even if the targets of EU operations are smugglers rather than militants. The danger of armed action escalating out of control, and leading to further loss of innocent life, is very real.

Given these enormous risks, and the fact that migrants and refugees prevented from leaving Libya will be left to languish in the most appalling conditions, suffering horrific abuses in immigration detention centers, some of which are part funded by the EU, it is unsurprising that Europe’s approach has come in for some withering criticism.

Last week over 300 migration experts from universities including Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton signed an open letter condemning the EU’s proposed military intervention and criticizing attempts to legitimate them by comparing the intervention to the fight against the Atlantic slave trade. “Where is the moral justification,” the letter writers asked, “for some of the world’s richest nations employing their naval and technological might in a manner that leads to the death of men, women, and children from some of the world’s poorest and most war torn regions?” They dismissed the analogy that European politicians have drawn between the Mediterranean smuggling networks and the slave trade as “patently false and entirely self-serving” since unlike African slaves in centuries past, today’s refugees and migrants are determined to make the journey. The signatories concluded that “there is no moral basis for measures that lead to the death of peaceable women, men and children, including victims of torture, and those fleeing persecution and war” and called on EU states to “stop abusing the history of transatlantic slavery to legitimate military and migrant deterrent actions.”

Amnesty International has warned 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. The world cannot continue to ignore its obligation to grant sanctuary to anyone fleeing such dreadful abuse.” But ignoring that obligation is precisely what many European governments are intent on doing. Proposals announced in Brussels this week for Europe to take in a proportionally miniscule 40,000 asylum seekers and then distribute them continent-wide according to a quota system appear doomed, given the firm opposition from the likes of France, Spain, Britain, and many other member states, who favor “disincentivizing” attempted crossings and armed action to thwart the means of escape from Libya.

Ultimately, whatever European politicians may say, the proposed military operations amount to an attack against the migrants and refugees themselves. Smaller, poorer countries like Lebanon and Jordan are expected to accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees, while some of the world’s richest nations find the suggestion of welcoming a four figure number too much for them to bear. Over recent years, migrants have been made the scapegoats of Europe for the pain of economic stagnation and austerity, with anti-immigrant parties on the rise and mainstream politicians doing little to challenge this ugly narrative. This political atmosphere has left thousands of vulnerable people, driven to the Libyan coastline from across the Middle East and North Africa, caught between the hammer of a disintegrating regional order and the anvil of a “Fortress Europe” that appears to know no limits to its growing xenophobia.

Image credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

David Wearing researches British foreign policy in the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he teaches courses on Middle East politics and development, and international political economy. His articles have been published by CNN, the Guardian, and openDemocracy.

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