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25th Feb 2024

EU mission could endanger refugees, UN warns

  • Mogherini promised that 'no refugees or migrants intercepted at sea will be sent back against their will' (Photo: DFATD | MAECD)

A senior UN official has warned the EU that “innocent refugees”, including children, will be “in the line of fire” of any operation to sink migrant smugglers’ boats.

Peter Sutherland, the UN special envoy on migration and a former EU commissioner, issued the warning at a meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in New York on Monday (11 May).

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He noted that in the first 130 days of this year “at least” 1,800 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to get to EU shores.

“This total represents a 20-fold increase over the same period last year. At this pace, we are on course to see between 10,000 and 20,000 migrants perish by autumn”.

He said about half the people who make it have a legitimate need for EU protection.

But he warned that an EU military operation in the Mediterranean would be more difficult than Atalanta, its anti-piracy mission in the Indian Ocean, which has all-but stopped attacks on international shipping.

“Some people draw comparisons to Atalanta. But the calculus in the Mediterranean is far more complicated, with innocent refugees, including many children, in the line of fire between smugglers and any potential military operations”, Sutherland said.

For her part, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini told the UNSC, also on Monday, that she’s been tasked “to propose actions to disrupt the business model of human trafficking networks across the Mediterranean”.

“We have in these [past] weeks prepared for a possible naval operation in the framework of the European Union Common Security and Defence Policy. The mandate of this operation is currently being elaborated with the EU member states”.

“We want to work with the United Nations, in particular with the UNSC”, she added.

She took pains to say the military plan is part of a wider approach.

She also pledged that "no refugees or migrants intercepted at sea will be sent back against their will".

Other European initiatives include: tripling the resources of the EU’s search and rescue operation, Triton; proposing binding quotas for migrant relocation in EU states; working with UN refugee agencies; and working with north African governments to improve law and order.

“This is not all about Libya, we know that very well. This can happen in other parts of the world. But we all know also very well that the vast majority of human trafficking and smuggling in these months is happening in Libya, or rather, through Libya”, Mogherini noted.

EU foreign ministers will, in Brussels next week, discuss a blueprint for the boat-sinking operation.

The Guardian, a British daily, has said it’ll be based on a UNSC resolution, to be introduced by the UK, because the EU has no legal mandate to propose one.

The Guardian says the mission is to be headquartered in Rome under Italian command.

It's to involve sending warships, some with helicopter gunships, from around 10 EU countries - including France, Italy, Spain, and the UK - into Libyan waters.

News of the idea has met with opposition from Russia, a UNSC veto-holder, however.

Russia’s envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said last week that “apprehending human traffickers and arresting these vessels is one thing, but destroying them would be going too far”.

The UN’s Sutherland, on Monday, added that migrants pay between $5,000 and $15,000 each for the sea passage, which often amounts to their life savings.

"Moving people across borders is, today, more lucrative than the sale of illicit drugs or arms”, he said.

He praised the Italian navy for saving lives.

But he criticised Triton, saying it has just six ships, compared to 32 vessels in Italy's “Mare Nostrum” operation, and that Triton’s mandate keeps it too close to the Italian coast.

He urged the EU to take in more asylum seekers and refugees and to extend legal ways of getting in, for instance, by issuing short-term work visas, for the sake of “circular migration” - seasonal workers who come and go.

Speaking in Washington later the same day, Marie Harf, a US State Department spokeswoman, echoed Sutherland's concerns.

"Broadly speaking, we believe that any [EU] response should impose consequences on criminal smugglers and their assets. It should [also] avoid putting migrants in further danger", she said.

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