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24th Jul 2021

EU navies to start capturing smugglers from 7 October

  • Mogherini said EUnavfor Med/Sophia could have already stopped 20 boats (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said on Thursday (24 September) the EU naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea is to start capturing smugglers from 7 October.

"The political decision has been taken, the assets are ready", she said, according to the AFP news agency.

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"We'll be able to board, search, seize vessels in international waters, [and] suspected smugglers and traffickers apprehended will be transferred to the Italian judicial authorities."

Speaking at the Rome HQ of the EU naval operation, EUnavfor Med, Mogherini said the EU now has a complete picture of how the smuggler networks operate.

The EU began surveillance work ("phase one") in June.

Mogherini said EUnavfor Med had recently identified 17 Libyan boats and three Egyptian boats which it could have intercepted if "phase two" had already begun.

"Phase three" - operations in Libyan waters and on Libyan coasts - requires UN Security Council or Libyan approval.

"We're continuing to work on the legal framework that could make it possible for us to operate also in Libyan territorial waters", Mogherini said, ahead of talks at the UN assembly in New York next week.

Balkan route

The UN says that more than 300,000 people have crossed the sea so far this year - 200,000 from Turkey to Greece and 110,000 from mostly Libya to Italy.

EUnavfor Med is to operate primarily on the Libya route.

But the Greece-Balkan route, which also includes tens of thousands of people walking from Turkey, is now the principal avenue.

More than 7,000 arrived in Croatia on Thursday after Hungary, which has registered 240,000 migrants this year, closed its border with Serbia.

It's now considering closing its border with Croatia and building a razor-wire fence on its Slovenia border.

It's also creating a transport "corridor" to move refugees to Austria.

"The Hungarian government will consider the ... possibility of creating conditions for migrants arriving from Croatia to the Hungarian border ... to move on in regulated circumstances", Janos Lazar, the Hungarian PM’s chief of staff, said on Thursday, Reuters reports.

Finnish authorities have also raised the alarm on people arriving via Russia.

They say 14,000 have already come. But they expect 50,000 by the end of the year, equivalent, in per capita terms, to Germany's expectations of 800,000.

Ill will

The EU this week agreed to relocate 120,000 people, but leaders are saying it's not enough.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday said: "I am deeply convinced that what Europe needs is … a permanent process for fairly distributing refugees".

"A first step has been taken, but we're still far from where we should be".

European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans told BBC radio: "If we're not able to tackle this issue, if we're not able to find sustainable solutions, you'll see a surge of the extreme right across the European continent".

The only protest on Thursday was by a Greek far-left group outside the Commission HQ in Athens calling for more help for migrants.

But Lazar, speaking for Hungary's right-wing leader, said: "The [120,000] quota proposal is a typical example of moral imperialism which Germany forces upon Europe".

French PM Manuel Valls also told France 2 TV: "We cannot welcome to Europe all those who flee Syria's dictatorship".

Sophia

Mogherini also proposed renaming "EUnavfor Med" as "Sophia", after a refugee girl born on a German rescue ship.

But image issues aside, the EU operation isn't expected to make much impact.

Vincenzo Camporini, Italy’s former military chief, has told EUobserver there’s too much risk of "collateral damage" - refugee deaths - if EUnavfor Med engages smuggler boats at sea.

Franco Roberti, an Italian anti-mafia prosecutor, told AFP the EU should instead work with north African states to break up smuggling gangs at source.

Mika Pitkaniemi, a Finnish customs chief, told the Yle news agency that smugglers inside the EU are hiding by having fake Syrian ID documents mailed from Turkey.

He noted that Finland intercepted 500 fake ID parcels this year, including 50 on Thursday.

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