Why Naval Operations Cannot Solve Europe's Migration Problems

5 MINS READJun 9, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Why Naval Operations Cannot Solve Europe's Migration Problems
A Libyan coast guard boat carrying mostly African migrants arrives at the port in the city of Misrata on May 3 after intercepting five boats trying to reach Europe.


  • Military operations are unlikely to prevent or diminish human trafficking across the Mediterranean.
  • EU migration policies and diplomatic collaborations will have a more direct effect on migration flows.

Numerous recent incidents involving overcrowded boats and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean have made one fact abundantly clear: The European Union must address its growing migration crisis. Proposed plans to resolve the problem have featured the use of naval forces to intercept human traffickers' vessels. However, limited maritime operations are unlikely to prevent the illegal transport of refugees through Libya and across the Mediterranean, especially in the absence of ground operations that target the trafficking organizations onshore.

The European Council agreed in May to organize a coordinated effort countering human trafficking operations in the Mediterranean. Leaked documents from EU military planners indicate that the initial stage of the operation, which is already being conducted in some capacity, will consist of maritime patrols intercepting refugee vessels and bringing their passengers to shore in Italy. Military leaders will plan future phases of the operation based on an assessment of how human trafficking from Libya works and how it may be best prevented through military means.

In particular, future action against traffickers may involve either expanding military operations onto Libyan shores or sinking traffickers' vessels after they are captured in international waters. Targeting trafficking organizations' infrastructure and onshore staging areas would cripple their operations before they even got to sea, while sinking the vessels would supposedly deprive human traffickers of the means for future smuggling operations. 

Both of these approaches, however, have flaws. The most obvious obstacle to onshore operations is the Libyan government based in Tobruk and competing militias and political entities across Libya, virtually all of whom oppose any EU military intervention in Libyan waters or on the country's shore. EU members initially planned to secure a U.N. Security Council mandate to conduct such operations, which could override the Libyan refusal. But Russia has made it clear that it would not allow the resolution to pass, halting attempts to secure the U.N. mandate altogether. Instead, the European Union is turning to diplomacy in an attempt to persuade the Libyan government to allow the extension of military operations into Libya.

The other proposed element of the plans, the destruction of vessels used in human trafficking operations, comes with its own problems. European military planners have clearly stated that this strategy is subject to change, as future naval approaches will ultimately depend on the outcome of an initial study on the mechanics of trafficking operations. But even as a temporary tactic, sinking traffickers' vessels would merely address a symptom of the problem.

Denying traffickers further use of captured vessels would not actually reduce the volume of people being illegally transported, because trafficking organizations largely consider their vessels expendable. Once a ship carrying refugees leaves the shore, there is no expectation that the vessel will return to pick up more refugees. Human traffickers have even been known to abandon vessels in the past. Their organizations make money charging refugees for transport toward the point of embarkation and for the actual trip across the Mediterranean. While trafficking organizations do spend money to secure a vessel and to bribe local officials or militia for security or port access, they have already made their profit before the ships even disembark. 

The justification for this strategy seems to be the success of EU and NATO anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, where a naval presence has been effective at curbing pirate organizations' economic viability. Unlike human traffickers, pirates make their profits only after successfully completing their operations at sea, giving authorities plenty of opportunities to disrupt their activities. Once intense patrolling and strikes against staging areas on land started preventing pirates from hijacking vessels, their lower success rate left them less room to compromise in negotiations when they did manage to capture a vessel. Their financial returns diminished to the point where the gains no longer outweighed the required investment. In effect, intercepting pirates at sea successfully caused funding for piracy operations to dry up.

But to have any impact on the cash flow of human trafficking organizations, authorities must disrupt their activities onshore, before they receive payment from refugees. And current EU naval activities may actually be boosting traffickers' profits. While there are clear humanitarian reasons for rescuing refugees from drowning when their vessels sink, rescue operations also lower the risk involved in the trip across the Mediterranean, enabling human traffickers to offer better guarantees to refugees and making the option of crossing the Mediterranean more appealing.

The European Union is aware that its migration challenges require more than simply a military solution. To that end, it has actively reached out to countries where refugee streams originate to negotiate alternative solutions, for example, tighter border security. Simultaneously, it has attempted to enact useful reforms that would even out the burden of migration among EU member states.

The European Union will still execute a military option targeting traffickers in the Mediterranean. To a certain degree, it has already started. But military endeavors will continue to serve mostly a humanitarian purpose, rather than functioning as a comprehensive policy to stem the flow of refugees.

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