Is There a Military Solution to Europe’s Migrant Crisis? Spoiler Alert: Probably Not.

European leaders are looking to military measures to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean.


The threat from Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti sounded imminent and ominous:

“We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “The plans for military intervention are there.”

The threat from Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti sounded imminent and ominous:

“We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “The plans for military intervention are there.”

But just what those plans will look like is not so clear, despite Pinotti’s confident tone.

EU leaders gathered in Brussels Thursday as part of a series of emergency summits in the wake of the shipwreck over the weekend that killed hundreds seeking to reach the continent. In the days since the wreck, which may have left as many as 900 dead, the continent’s politicians have opted to focus on smugglers: the people operating the networks and vessels that charge desperate migrants exorbitant fees for dangerous passage, and who have emerged as an easy target for those looking to take quick action. Prominent voices, among them Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, have begun calling for the use of military force against the traffickers.

European naval forces have in recent years stepped up their efforts to patrol the Mediterranean and interdict boats laden with migrants. After the 2013 sinking of a migrant vessel off the coast of Lampedusa, the Italian navy launched an ambitious mission called Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, aimed to carrying out search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. But that operation was replaced by a smaller EU mission, Triton, with a scaled back budget and a mandate focused on security and border control.

That mission manifestly failed to prevent this weekend’s disaster, and European leaders are now under pressure to come up with a way to prevent additional mass drownings. As the German paper Die Zeit described the European political environment, the motivations aren’t exactly humanitarian: “We don’t want migrants to drown. We don’t want them over here. So what do we want to do?” Unable to quickly repair the broken societies from which many of the migrants hail, European leaders have latched on to a military solution as a quick fix to a problem they’d very much like to go away.

But there have been few details on just what such an intervention might look like, and already, many have voiced skepticism about the sensibility of a military solution. The 10-point plan of action that formed the basis of Thursday’s talks is heavy on possible law enforcement and military efforts to stem the flow of migrants.

So might European forces be able to destroy smugglers’ ships? “The only way to stop them is to destroy all the boats in Libya, which is obviously nonsensical,” Alain Coldefy, a retired French admiral told the Telegraph.

What about interdicting the migrant vessels on their way to the continent? “They talk about capturing and destroying migrant boats, but presumably they will have people on-board, so they’re not going to just shoot them out of the water,” Matt Carr, the British author of Fortress Europe, a book on migration, told AFP.

With Europe grasping for a solution, the military operation on everyone’s tongue these days is Atalanta, the campaign launched in 2009 to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. The EU vessels attached to that mission intercepted and occasionally destroyed pirate vessels off the coast of Somalia that had become a scourge of international shipping.

But combating pirates — which came with its own human rights perils — is a very different mission than combating smugglers with boats full of human cargo whose safety they are unlikely to consider when faced with the threat of military force.

Nonetheless, the idea of a military mission seems to be gathering momentum. On Thursday afternoon, British Prime Minister David Cameron committed the use of the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark, three helicopters, and two ships for the purpose of “smashing the gangs and stabilizing the region.” Germany has reportedly offered a troop supply ship and two frigates. Belgium and Ireland have each committed a naval vessel.

U.N. and relief agency officials, meanwhile, are clamoring for a plan that prioritizes the safety of migrants.

In his statement, Cameron made clear that the Britain would not be offering additional refugees asylum.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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