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11th Apr 2021

EU preparing to start migrant operation before UN approval

  • The EU's anti-piracy mission off Somalia, Atalanta, is to be a model for EU Navfor Med (Photo: eunavfor)

The EU is preparing to move ahead on its anti-migrant smuggling operation, EU Navfor Med, in the Mediterranean Sea prior to UN approval, while fretting over the potential loss of life the mission could entail.

A 20-page blueprint, prepared by the EU foreign service ahead of ministers’ talks on Monday (18 May), and seen by EUobserver, notes that intelligence-gathering and “seizure” of ships can begin without a UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate in a “Chapter VII” resolution.

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  • The paper says the EU doesn’t need UN approval to begin surveillance of potential targets (Photo: United Nations Photo)

The paper says the EU doesn’t need the UN’s say-so to start “force generation”, or to task the EU’s satellite centre in Spain and member states’ aircraft to begin surveillance of potential targets.

It notes that “if using assets other than satellites” it would require “host nation approval” from Libya, Egypt, or Tunisia.

It adds that if the smugglers’ ships have a national flag, they can only be seized “with the consent of this [flag-issuing] state”. But they can still be "boarded" and "searched" even without the state's approval.

If they don’t fly any flag, they can be seized “provided that the warship conducting the seizure is so authorised under its own national law”, or boarded and searched “even in the absence of a warship having its own national legal approval”.

The EU foreign service chief, Federica Mogherini, appealed to the UN for a Chapter VII mandate last week, with EU leaders hoping to launch the operation in June.

Russia, a UNSC veto-holder, has voiced opposition.

For his part, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in the margins of a Nato meeting in Turkey on Thursday: “My impression is that there is no veto in principal from one of the veto powers in the Security Council”.

But the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a Geneva-based intergovernmental body, has voiced “serious concerns” over the EU military plan.

The UN’s special envoy on migration, former EU commissioner Peter Sutherland, has also warned “innocent refugees”, including children, could be placed “in the line of fire”.

If the EU gets its Chapter VII, it aims to start “destruction of smugglers vessels and assets on the high seas” and in the “sovereign territorial waters” of host states whether or not those countries or the boats’ flag-issuing states agree.

It is to involve: “Boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units”.

It also aims to park warships in Libyan waters in order to “deter” migrant smugglers and traffickers.

It notes, despite Mogherini statements to the contrary, that “a presence ashore might be envisaged if agreement was reached with relevant authorities” for the sake of “seizure and/or physical destruction of smuggling-enabling assets (e.g. boats, fuel dumps, embarkation facilities) … at anchor, alongside or ashore”.

Loss of life

The EU blueprint makes it clear that people are likely to get killed.

Echoing the IOM and Sutherland’s concerns, it says: “Non-compliant boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life”.

With no central government in control in Libya, it says: “the existence of heavy military armaments (including coastal artillery batteries) and military capable militias present a robust threat to EU ships and aircraft operating in the vicinity”.

It adds: “The terrorist presence in the region also constitutes a security threat. Action taken ashore could be undertaken in a hostile environment”.

It also warns that: “Any casualties as a result of EU action could trigger a negative response from the local population and the wider region, jeopardising support and follow-up”.

The paper says the operation should initially last one year. But its exit strategy indicates it’s likely to last longer.

The EU paper says it should only be wound down when Libyan authorities “demonstrate sufficient control of the Libyan coast to tackle the smuggling of migrants”.

It adds that “kinetic action along Libyan coasts might oblige smugglers to shift their tactics and change their departure sites, eventually relocating them in neighbouring countries”.

To an extent, the shift is already taking place.

Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU’s Warsaw-based border control agency, Frontex, told the Associated Press on Thursday: "There is a shift from the central Mediterranean to the eastern Mediterranean" as people try to get from Turkey to Greece by sea.

"They are moving very quickly, so we have to be flexible."

Relocation

Meanwhile, the EU operation won’t solve the problem of what to do with rescued migrants.

The paper says there were already 10,237 “illegal border crossing” attempts in the Mediterranean so far this year, while Italy estimates 200,000 people are in Libya waiting to make the attempt.

It notes that under international law, any migrants intercepted by EU vessels “need to be transported or towed in the safest conditions to pre-identified (in subsequent planning) ports of debarkation where local authorities will take the responsibility to care for the survivors an adopt the necessary measures in case of asylum seekers”.

It adds that it’s unclear what the EU should do with any traffickers whom it arrests.

“The arrest of smugglers may be a situation faced by the EU operation. The subsequent issue of management of arrested smugglers requires agreed protocols … which will need to be developed in further planning”.

The European Commission last week unveiled proposals for EU national quotas for asylum seekers in order to relieve the burden on Greece, Italy, and Malta.

The quotas are to be based on GDP, population size, and existing migrant numbers in host countries.

But the plan has met with early criticism from the UK and Hungary.

"There can be no question of Hungary letting in migrants on the basis of the EU's quota," Janos Lazar, prime minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff, told press in Budapest on Thursday, AFP reports.

"Hungary will do everything to prevent this plan in Brussels".

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