EU announces naval operation against migrant smugglers

Ships, aircraft and drones to monitor activity of boats carrying people from Libya to Italy

Migrants queue after disembarking from the Royal Navy ship HMS Bulwark upon their arrival in the port of Catania on the coast of Sicily. Photograph: Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images.

Migrants queue after disembarking from the Royal Navy ship HMS Bulwark upon their arrival in the port of Catania on the coast of Sicily. Photograph: Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images.


The European Union claims it has turned a new page in its battle to quell the Mediterranean migration crisis, as officials announced the long-awaited start of surveillance-based naval operations against Libyan people smugglers.

Fifteen ships, aircraft and drones from at least 10 EU countries will be used to monitor the activity of smuggling boats carrying migrants from Libya to Italy. Their mission will be to decide whether it will be possible to mount full-scale combat operations against the smugglers in future, amid concerns from migration specialists about the precision of the information they will gather.

The vessels will operate outside of Libyan waters, an EU diplomat said on Monday, as military operations have a go-ahead neither from the UN, nor from Libya’s two rival governments.

In a separate EU initiative, an intelligence hub has also been set up in Sicily to help collate the information gathered and to interview recent migrant arrivals about the smuggling process.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said the mission was just one part of a holistic plan to solve migration , with other initiatives underway to tackle the root causes of the largest wave of mass migration since the second world war. But rights activists warned that any enlarged military mission might harm the very people the EU says it wants to help, and migration specialists questioned the use of intelligence gathered so far from Libyan territory.

Ms Mogherini said: “The EU has never taken the issue of migration as seriously as we are doing now. With this operation, we are targeting the business model of those who benefit from the misery of migrants. But it’s only a part of a broader strategy, including the cooperation with our partners in Africa to contribute to save lives, dismantle the networks of the smugglers of human beings and address the root causes of migration.”

Military operations

But campaigners warned against prioritising military operations more than helping the migrants themselves. Judith Sunderland, the author of a recent Human Rights Watch report on Mediterranean migration, said: “Right now it’s just surveillance, which is fine. We understand the legitimate interest in getting info on how smuggling networks operate. But our main message is that any use of force against smugglers has to be calibrated to ensure the lives and safety and rights of asylum seekers and migrants who are in the hands of smuggling.”

Concerns rose after the UK withdrew the 176m HMS Bulwark from search-and-rescue operations this weekend , replaced it with the 90m HMS Enterprise, and admitted that the latter’s focus would be “intelligence-led”.

Researchers investigating smuggling networks in Libya also questioned the effectiveness of conducting intelligence efforts from outside of the country’s borders. Tuesday Reitano, head of the secretariat at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, is compiling an extensive report for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, on the same subject.

She argues that the EU’s surveillance operation will “struggle to add value” unless it is conducted in Libya itself, or in the countries that migrants pass through to reach its borders.


Ms Reitano said: “The majority of the flow through Sicily now is sub-Saharan migrants, mainly west Africans, who are using a series of ad hoc community-based trafficking networks that are transacting in cash or hawala [an informal system of money transfer] for the most part and moving through inaccessible parts of the Sahara and southern Libya. There are few, if any, ‘kingpins’ or formal criminal networks at play that would significantly impact the flow if removed.”

For their part, smugglers in Libya have previously scoffed at any EU attempt to tackle them. When the possibility of military action was first mooted in April, one Libyan smuggler told the Guardian: “It’s been happening for years, these promises and threats. They’ll move on. What are they going to do, put two frigates here?”