EU launches Mediterranean mission against migrant smugglers

2015-06-22 21:00
Migrants wait to disembark from an Italian Coast Guard ship at Catania. (AP)

Migrants wait to disembark from an Italian Coast Guard ship at Catania. (AP)

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Brussels - EU foreign ministers on Monday launched a military mission in the Mediterranean Sea aimed at cracking down on migrant smuggling networks and dismantling the trade, as part of a broader effort to curb the loss of life.

The European Union is experiencing an unprecedented influx of migrants attempting to reach the bloc's southern shores by paying smugglers to place them on boats - which turn out to be rickety and overcrowded.

"The targets are not the migrants. The targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

The operation has three phases, starting with surveillance and information-gathering on smuggling networks, with the ultimate aim of seizing and incapacitating boats and equipment used to transport migrants towards Europe.

The later phases are on hold, however, while the EU seeks the backing of Libyan authorities as well as a United Nations Security Council mandate.

Libya, which is beset by a power struggle between two rival governments, has been the main staging post for smugglers sending migrants to sea.

The EU mission is based in Rome, under the command of Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino. The EU costs are estimated at $13.6m for the first 14 months.

Phase one will start "in the coming days", Mogherini said.

Half of the EU's 28 member states are taking part in the operation, from across the bloc, she said. These are Belgium, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

The mission will begin with five naval ships, two submarines, three reconnaissance planes, two drones and three helicopters, a senior EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity. Around 1 000 marines will initially be involved, in the Rome headquarters and at sea.

Military personnel will be trained to operate in a "complex, threatening environment",  preparing them also for their duty to save any migrants they come across at sea, the diplomat said, noting that armed traffickers have previously menaced rescue operations.

Aircraft and ships will begin moving into position in the coming days, with the aim to be up and running by the first week of July, he added. The mission's maritime base will be on board the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour.

Phases two and three of the operation could include seizing or even destroying vessels and equipment on the high seas, in Libyan waters or onshore, depending on what kind of mandate the full operation is granted.

The mission is part of a broader EU approach to migration, which also includes proposals to redistribute migrants arriving on Europe's southern shores across the bloc, and to directly resettle displaced people from war-torn countries such as Syria.

By June 17, more than 114 000 migrants had crossed the Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration, with most of them arriving in Italy and Greece. In that period, more than 1 800 people are known to have died during the crossing.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni welcomed the launch of the naval mission as a "first step" towards tackling smuggling networks, but also stressed the importance of reaching agreement at the EU level on the redistribution of migrants.

EU leaders are due to discuss the issue at a summit on Thursday and Friday. Member states have so far failed to adopt the proposals, amid disagreement on whether the redistribution figures should be binding, and how many people each country should accept.

"Solidarity can't be an option, it must be a responsibility for the EU," Gentiloni said.

Mogherini said she expects an "effective answer" from EU leaders this week. "Because when ... these desperate people knock on our door, we cannot avoid the question on how to welcome them here in Europe," she added.

Read more on:    eu  |  military  |  north africa

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