EU targets smugglers in Libya, but migration policy gaps remain

European officials have approved controversial proposals to launch a “naval operation” against people smugglers and human traffickers operating on Libya’s Mediterranean coast.

After the meeting on Monday (18 May), the European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said officials had approved a mission to “destroy the business model of the smugglers and the networks of traffickers in the Mediterranean.”

Mogherini hoped the plan would be launched after 22 June, subject to an expected green light from the United Nations (UN) Security Council, when EU foreign ministers meet again.

However, in recent weeks, there has been much discussion of what the operation will look like. Some observers have expressed fears that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Libya will be the first to lose out.

While Mogherini previously tried to downplay the operation, an exclusive Guardian report referenced a 19-page strategy paper for the mission, which raised the possibility of using ground troops “if agreement was reached with relevant authorities.”

The document meanwhile admits that the campaign runs a “high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.”

Judith Sunderland, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Europe, told Equal Times that the “bottom line” of any operation must be that “any action taken to dismantle smuggling networks…has to ensure that the lives, safety and rights of migrants and asylum seekers cannot under any circumstances be caught in the crossfire.”

“This means that any action targeting the boats…should not jeopardise the rights and safety of the people on the boats,” Sunderland argued.

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants “intercepted” during the operation must also be to safe ports, she added.


“Just ink on paper”

This is the latest in a series of major policy launches by European officials in the face of a migration crisis that is spiralling out of control.

The EU Commission presented a series of new proposals last week aimed at addressing irregular migration, particularly in the Mediterranean. However, continuing deaths at sea and an unwillingness by member states to participate in comprehensive action has often created sticking-points.

The EU Migration Agenda, launched in Brussels by European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Mogherini and Home Affairs and Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, aims to formalise months of negotiations and stave off growing criticism.

Already this year more than 1,800 people have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, piling pressure and scrutiny on European policies. There is a growing consensus and debate that approaches to search-and-rescue, asylum and resettlement are lacking.

Immediate actions highlighted in the draft include renewed emphasis on saving lives at sea, which European states committed to at a 23 April extraordinary summit and a European Parliament resolution a few days later, as well as targeting smuggling and trafficking networks that “exploit vulnerable migrants” and new resettlement and relocation provisions.

Abu Ammar, a Syrian refugee in Egypt, worked as a middleman between smugglers and refugees looking to reach Europe last year.

He condemned Europe’s policies as “lies.”

“The Europeans today are exactly like the Arab governments. They make laws and then put them aside, without putting them into practice,” he argued. “They always talk about human rights but really, it’s just ink on paper.”

Steve Peers, professor of European Law at the University of Essex, said that while there is “a bit of ambition” to the Migration Agenda’s proposals, the material results are likely to be “fairly modest.”

“Where the Commission sticks its neck out, it’s going to get pushed back down on some of those more balanced aspects,” Peers told Equal Times, discussing the resettlement and relocation proposals ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.

Peers, meanwhile, suggested that proposals “that try to balance out on resettlement and relocation…probably don’t have much chance of success.”

Although the European Parliament and other bodies can make proposals and recommendations, power often remains in the hands of member states.

Avramopoulos ended his speech last week by saying he sincerely hoped “member states do their part and make this agenda a reality.”