Monday

21st Jun 2021

EU to expand Mediterranean anti-smuggler force

  • The EU force has been conducting reconnaissance operations since June (Photo: Israel Defense Forces)

EU countries will on Wednesday (16 September) pledge more naval assets for an operation to curb human smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea.

The "force generation conference", to take part in Brussels under the auspices of the EU external action service, comes after ministers, on Monday, gave the green light to "phase two" of "EUnavfor Med".

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The operation currently has eight vessels, including two submarines, and several aircraft from 14 member states.

Phase one, in the EU's words, consisted of "surveillance and assessment of human smuggling and trafficking networks" and started in June.

Phase two "provides for the search and, if necessary, diversion of suspicious vessels" in international waters and is expected to start in mid-October.

Phase three "would allow the disposal of vessels and related assets, preferably before use, and to apprehend traffickers and smugglers" in Libyan waters and on Libya's coasts.

Monday's decision will also see EU officials begin to draft "rules of engagement" for phase two, which must be approved by EU ambassadors in the Political and Security Committee before EUnavfor Med switches up gear.

An internal EU document on the project, seen by EUobserver in May, warned that: "Non-compliant boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life".

For his part, Vincenzo Camporini, the former head of the Italian military, told EUobserver Monday that six to 10 vessels, supported by UAVs and other airforce surveillance, should be enough to carry out the second phase.

He noted the rules of engagement will be “critical” in defining the operation’s needs, however.

“If they just sink ships after rescuing the people on board, they won’t be doing much more than they do already, which is to sink empty vessels on grounds that they are a danger for mairitime mavigation”, he said.

He noted it would be “too dangerous” to “engage” with smugglers’ vessels while smugglers are on board.

Looking to phase three, he added: “If you go on shore, you are basicially declaring war on Libya and I think to get a UN resolution to do that is very, very unlikely”.

Russia factor

Russia's EU envoy, Vladimir Chizhov, has also noted the EU scheme will come up for discussion at the UN general assembly in New York this month.

He told the Tass news agency, on Friday, the EU needs a UN resolution even for action in international waters which leads to "detention and control of vessels without a flag, or under flags of countries that supported the UN Security Council resolution".

He said it also needs a UN or a Libyan permit for phase three.

Meanwhile, Russia, a UN veto-holder, is expanding its military presence in the region.

It confirmed last week that it's sending military personnel and weapons to support the Syrian government, its old ally, in the fight against Islamic State.

It also warned the US to be careful who it hits in its bombing sorties in Syria.

Its Middle East intervention has prompted some EU diplomats to fret whether Russia plans to trade co-operation on IS or migrants for an end to Western sanctions over Ukraine.

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