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The EU Is Using Warships to Target Human Smugglers. What Could Go Wrong?

The EU is deploying warships to stop human smugglers, but will the operation's benefits outweigh its risks?

LAMPEDUSA, ITALY - JUNE 21:  A boat loaded with illegal immigrant is seen on  June 21, 2005 in Lampedusa, Italy. Tens of thousands of immigrants land on the Italian coast each year, most of them heading from north Africa on ramshackle boats.In the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia, Lampedusa Island is one of the main gateways for illegal immigration from Africa into Europe. According to a report by Amnesty International, Illegal immigrants who land in Italy consistently allege they have been abused, holding centres are overcrowded and no legal assistance is offered. Italian authorities refused to give access to the centres to enable further investigations by Amnesty. The Amnesty International report says 15,647 people were held in the centres in 2004: a 9 per-cent increase on the previous year. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
LAMPEDUSA, ITALY - JUNE 21: A boat loaded with illegal immigrant is seen on June 21, 2005 in Lampedusa, Italy. Tens of thousands of immigrants land on the Italian coast each year, most of them heading from north Africa on ramshackle boats.In the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia, Lampedusa Island is one of the main gateways for illegal immigration from Africa into Europe. According to a report by Amnesty International, Illegal immigrants who land in Italy consistently allege they have been abused, holding centres are overcrowded and no legal assistance is offered. Italian authorities refused to give access to the centres to enable further investigations by Amnesty. The Amnesty International report says 15,647 people were held in the centres in 2004: a 9 per-cent increase on the previous year. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the European Union announced the launch of Operation Sophia: a robust plan to deploy six warships, commanded from Rome, to stop, intercept, and search boats suspected of human trafficking.

At least 3,000 migrants and asylum-seekers have drowned on the dangerous trek across the Mediterranean this year, and the EU’s goal is simple: to stop the desperate migrants from boarding the ships in the first place. But some experts are worried the use of military ships could blur the lines between rescuing migrants and targeting dangerous smugglers.

Until now, efforts have focused primarily on search and rescue operations, although a naval surveillance program launched in June used vessels from 10 EU member states to better track the movements of human smugglers working on the Libyan coast. That program was designed to determine whether launching a combat operation against the smugglers would be possible.

In a phone call with Foreign Policy Wednesday, Itayi Virir, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group that promotes humane migration, said stopping smugglers is certainly one of the most important measures the EU can take, but “if this is going to be limited to just the sea then we have a problem.”

According to him, the details of the program, named after a child born on a rescue ship earlier this year, remain unclear. In particular, IOM is concerned about how the military vessels will identify whether boats, including fishing vessels, are being used lawfully, or are carrying migrants illegally.

Medecins Sans Frontieres — also known as Doctors Without Borders — declined to comment on Wednesday’s announcement, but pointed to a May editorial written by the president of their Belgian branch, which slammed the EU for failing to “offer immediate alternatives to these dangerous journeys.”

“European states have demonstrated a united political will to focus on the boats rather than those who are on the boats,” she wrote in May.

IOM was not quite so vocally opposed to the EU’s latest plan, which they said has its merits if carried out properly. But both organizations have expressed concern the militarized operation could end up endangering the lives of migrants if split-second decisions prompt violent response from EU forces.

“Whenever you involve the military whether its navy forces or the army there’s always the risk of people getting hurt or worse,” Viriri told FP.

And stopping human smugglers from piling thousands of desperate people onto boats won’t solve the crises that forced those people to flee in the first place, Viriri added.

Citing an August incident when dozens of migrants and asylum-seekers were found dead in a truck in Austria, Viriri said the smugglers helping people reach Europe from North Africa are often criminals who are also trafficking arms, and to stop them will take as much, if not more, resolve as tackling piracy off the east coast of Africa.

“We’re not just talking about smugglers who help desperate migrants out of the goodness of their hearts. We’re now talking of international criminal gangs,” he said.

The launch of the ships Wednesday coincided with a joint speech from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, who addressed the EU parliament together in Strasbourg.

Their joint address was the first of its kind since then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and then-French President Francois Mitterand spoke in Strasbourg shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In their Wednesday speech, the two European leaders called for a unified stance on migration.

Both Hollande and Merkel have previously expressed that delays in addressing the migration crisis could threaten the cohesion of the entire EU.

And both have also lashed out at Eastern European countries accused of treating migrants and asylum-seekers inhumanely by using force at border patrols and refusing to allow migrants and refugees to cross their borders at all.

On Wednesday, Merkel called the migration crisis “a test of historic proportions” and Hollande expressed his discontent with conservative opponents at home in France, who he claims are using fear to shirk responsibility.

“Each crisis raises fears,” he said. “Nothing is more vain than trying to take cover alone.”

Photo Credit: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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