Report

Europe Seeks U.N. Blessing to Confront Human Smugglers in the Mediterranean

Britain and other European governments want the U.N. Security Council to authorize their navies to help fight the worst migrant crisis in decades.

SALERNO, ITALY - APRIL 22:  Migrants wait to disembark from the Italian Navy vessel 'Chimera' in the harbor of Salerno on April 22, 2015 in Salerno, Italy. The Italian navy brought 545 migrants to Salerno, on the mainland of Italy, in a bid to ease the pressure on overcrowded centres receiving migrants in ports in Sicily. Migrants continue to arrive on the island of Lampedusa from North Africa, taking advantage of calm seas. Hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished over the past week as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images)
SALERNO, ITALY - APRIL 22: Migrants wait to disembark from the Italian Navy vessel 'Chimera' in the harbor of Salerno on April 22, 2015 in Salerno, Italy. The Italian navy brought 545 migrants to Salerno, on the mainland of Italy, in a bid to ease the pressure on overcrowded centres receiving migrants in ports in Sicily. Migrants continue to arrive on the island of Lampedusa from North Africa, taking advantage of calm seas. Hundreds of migrants are believed to have perished over the past week as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in order to seek refuge. (Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images)

Straining to contain their worst migration crisis in generations, European powers have begun laying the groundwork for the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the boarding and interception of people-smuggling ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

The effort, which is being led by Britain, is aimed at stemming the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern and African migrants and refugees seeking to reach Europe on rickety boats from Libya, a primary transit point on the illicit human smuggling trade. Britain is hoping to see the resolution adopted before world leaders arrive in New York later this month for the start of the U.N.’s annual General Assembly debate. It has begun circulating key elements of a resolution with certain Security Council members.

The diplomatic push comes at a time when Britain and other European governments have come under criticism for doing too little to absorb the waves of migrants fleeing Syria, Libya, and other Middle Eastern and African countries. Thousands of migrants have died making the dangerous boat rides to European shores, and the photograph of a drowned toddler named Aylan Kurdi stirred worldwide outrage last week. One senior European ambassador said it was Europe’s worst crisis since World War II.

Following Sunday mass at the Vatican, Pope Francis requested Catholic parishes throughout Europe take in at least one refugee family. Speaking to Catholic followers, Pope Francis said: “Every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe [must] take in one family,” Reuters reported him saying. The pope said that the two parishes located inside the Vatican itself would take in two families.

But calls mounted for countries outside of Europe — particularly the United States, Brazil, and the Persian Gulf, where the wealthy monarchs that have armed some of Syria’s anti-government insurgents have declined to open their borders to Syrian refugees — to do more to alleviate the crisis.

“It’s not just the United States that keeps pretending the refugee catastrophe is a European problem,” Michael Ignatieff, a writer and former Canadian Labour leader, wrote last weekend in the New York Times. “Look at countries that pride themselves on being havens for the homeless. Canada, where I come from? As few as 1,074 Syrians, as of August. Australia? No more than 2,200. Brazil? Fewer than 2,000, as of May.”

Last spring, Britain circulated a separate draft resolution that would have authorized European navies to pursue people smugglers onto Libyan soil and territorial waters. But London shelved the initiative after Libya’s fractious political and military leaders said they would not permit foreign intervention to address the crisis.

U.N.-based diplomats said European powers, including Britain, believe that their naval forces already have the right to board ships on the high seas. But other countries, including Germany, want to have an international imprimatur on any action that could potentially require the use of force.

Libya’s U.N. ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, said his country wouldn’t oppose a U.N. resolution designed to confront smugglers on the high seas.

“We have no problem with this kind of resolution since it has nothing to do with our sovereignty,” Dabbashi told Foreign Policy of the latest European initiative. “Certainly we will support that. We will support any effort to rescue these immigrants.”

But Dabbashi said any decisions about whether to expand the European naval forces’ authority to Libyan territorial waters — and to potentially authorize military action within the country itself — should await the creation of a government of national accord. But he expressed skepticism about the need for foreign forces. “We still don’t believe there is a need for it,” he said. “We believe that it’s easier for local authorities to stop this flow of immigrants without the need for the use of force.”

The effort to stem the mass migration of refugees has been complicated by years of political turmoil in Libya, which has fragmented since a NATO-led intervention resulted in the death of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and created a political and military void.

Bernardino León, a Spanish national that serves as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for Libya, has been working to broker a deal to form a new government of national unity. Those efforts have stalled as a result of fighting.

On Aug. 26, Bernardino painted a “mixed picture” of conditions in Libya at a briefing to the U.N. Security Council. He noted that local communities in western Libya have pursued “cease-fire and reconciliation initiatives” that are “contributing to a marked reduction in military tensions across that part of the country and the wider Tripoli area.”

But security conditions elsewhere are deteriorating, he added.

“Fifteen months since the start of military operations in Benghazi in the east, it is clear that the confrontations between the parties have gradually transformed into a war of trenches with no imminent end foreseen,” he told the council by video conference from Paris. “In the interim, the status quo is exacting a heavy toll on the civilian population, and on whatever remains of the city’s much damaged infrastructure.”

Last spring, four of the U.N. Security Council’s five European members — Britain, France, Spain, and Lithuania — drew up a resolution that would have given a mandate to European navies to use force in the pursuit of human smugglers on Libyan territorial waters and soil. Russia has been skeptical about the need for the use of force.

But they were unable to secure the Libyans’ consent.

The European Council, meanwhile, reached agreement last May on a three-phase plan aimed at undermining the financial incentives that fuel the human-smuggling crisis.

The first phase, which is already well underway, involves “gathering and sharing intelligence about the irregular migration networks and tracking the vessels used or suspected of being used by traffickers,” according to a fact sheet issued by the European Council.

The second phase would give a European maritime force — known as EUNAVFOR MED — the authority to board, search, and seize ships on the high seas. As originally conceived, this phase would also have involved the seizure of ships in Libyan territorial waters.

But diplomats say that idea is being put off until a later date because of persistent Libyan opposition to the plan.

The final, and most controversial, third phase, would require a U.N. Security Council resolution, invoking Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of military force to enforce the council’s demands. The resolution would mandate Europe’s navies to “take all necessary measures,” including the use of force, to confront vessels suspected of smuggling people to Europe. It would give international forces the right to pursue smugglers onto Libyan soil and to render suspected smuggling ships inoperable or dispose of them.

European diplomats acknowledge that they have not been able to secure Libyan support to move onto the third phase. But they say they will continue to press Libya’s leaders to reconsider.

U.N. officials, meanwhile, say conditions for the hundreds of thousands of people taking flight to Europe remain desperate.

“More than 300,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea so far this year,” António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said last week. “Over 2,600 didn’t survive the dangerous crossing.” The death of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, he added, “has just stirred the hearts of the world public.”

Reports from the Libyan exodus have been particularly grim.

Last month, about 40 people in a packed vessel were asphyxiated by fuel fumes in the ship’s hold, Italian navy rescuers told the Associated Press. About 320 people were saved.

“Thousands of refugee parents are risking the lives of their children on unsafe smuggling boats primarily because they have no other choice,” Guterres said in a list of what he described as the six fundamental principles needed to confront the crisis. “European countries — as well as governments in other regions — must make some fundamental changes to allow for larger resettlement and humanitarian admission quotas, expanded visa and sponsorship programs, scholarships, and other ways to enter Europe legally.”

Photo credit: Ivan Romano/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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