Security, humanitarian concerns taint EU’s plans on migration

Libya issues security warning over EU plans to destroy smuggler boats even as the proposed resettlement scheme is dubbed as inadequate by humanitarian organisations

Photo: AFM
Photo: AFM

The announcement of the EU’s comprehensive plan to stem the deadly human trafficking trade, which this year alone has cost the lives of at least 1,800 asylum seekers, was welcomed by many, but its approval is neither universal nor guaranteed.

The most pronounced opposition came from the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tobruk, with its United Nations ambassador warning the plan could jeopardise Libya’s sovereignty and undermine attempts to achieve some sort of stability in the war-torn country. 

The EU plan includes operations “to systematically identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers” but Libya’s UN envoy, Ibrahim Dabbashi voiced suspicion on the real intentions behind the EU’s plan to have a military presence on Libyan soil and its seas, adding that such a plan could “raise more problems than it solves”.

He also expressed deep reservations about the European plan, pointing out that Libyan fishermen’s livelihoods could be at risk as their vessels might get destroyed during such operations, which totally depend on intelligence gathered by foreign operatives. 

In the small Libyan port of Zuwara, one of the main points of departure for migrants, hundreds of fishing boats line the quay
In the small Libyan port of Zuwara, one of the main points of departure for migrants, hundreds of fishing boats line the quay

According to the agenda, European agencies Frontex and Europol “will also develop profiles of vessels which could be used by smugglers, following patterns to identify potential vessels and monitor their movements”.

But Dabbashi cautioned “it will be very difficult to distinguish between fishermen and trafficking boats. It could be disastrous for fishermen.”

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Dabbashi said “If we have to ask for assistance we will ask for assistance of the Security Council to extend the authority of the Libyan government over all of Libya,” he said.

Dabbashi’s skepticism echoed the criticism voiced by the renegade general leading the Tobruk government’s offensive against the Libya Dawn militias which established a parallel government in Tripoli last year. 

General Khalifa Haftar said Libya would be open for cooperation with the EU but warned that military action on Libyan territory would be “unwise”.

Before going ahead with its plan, the EU requires either a resolution of the United Nations Security Council or permission by the Libyan political forces. According to international media, the United Nations was considering green lighting a European military action against the people smugglers in Libya’s territorial waters. 

The question however remains as to whether Russia, which has veto power at the Security Council, will agree to the resolution. It has already objected to the use of the word “destroy” in reference to the smugglers’ boats.

According to Foreign Policy, American diplomats have also privately raised concerns with foreign officials about the wisdom of trying to adopt the resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, a provision used to authorise sanctions or the use of military force. 

Foreign Policy also said that some diplomats, however, say they suspect the US is reluctant to see the Security Council getting into the business of addressing migration issues because it doesn’t want to set a precedent that might invite other governments to call for council consideration of American migration policies.

UN mandate or Libyan authorisation ‘non-negotiable’ 

Academic Stephen Calleya, director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies (MEDAC), said the urgency to address the migration situation in the Mediterranean had become obvious. 

“The international community must take specific action to address the humanitarian issue. When it comes to the military action per se, and the extent to which the trafficking will be addressed, it is clear that any use of force requires a UN Security Council mandate or a specific request by the country’s authorities for it to be legitimate.”

Calleya said this was non-negotiable in international relations, irrespective of the nature of the force.

Asked about the dangers of targeting the wrong boats, Calleya said that if an action is authorised, it would be impossible to predict what would ultimately happen. 

“This is why a clear mandate is needed. Without that, any other intervention severely runs the risk of not meeting the required international legal framework which one is supposed to abide by.”

Calleya drove home the message that the EU should push tremendously its search and rescue mission where border control should not exclude saving lives. 

“The EU should immediately introduce a comprehensive search and rescue mechanism specifically in the centre of the Mediterranean because of the realities that exist,” he said.

The European Agenda on Migration was also welcomed by Brigadier Ret’d Martin Xuereb, director of the Migration Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).

The private mission helped rescue 1,441 people in just 12 days in back-to-back sea rescues from unseaworthy boats in the central Mediterranean Sea.

“MOAS sees itself as an extension of the coordinating centres. We are at their disposal just like any other vessel out at sea.  The difference is that rescuing migrants is our primary mission,” he said.

MY Phoenix, the vessel used by MOAS, is equipped with two drones which can fly up to 150 miles per hour, spotting and monitoring distressed vessels. This year MOAS was given access to fly its drones with the Libyan flight information region.

Asked whether MOAS would be ready to provide any intelligence gathered through its drones, Xuereb said such a question was “very hypothetical”.

“There is no indication whatsoever that Europe is going to ask third parties to provide it with intelligence. We use our drones to assist us in our search and rescue missions,” he said.

‘Ridiculous’ resettlement scheme 

Although the humanitarian aspect takes a back seat, the document indicates a slight shift from the habitual Fortress Europe attitude to a more humanitarian approach. 

“There must be safe and legal ways for them to reach the EU,” the agenda says, adding that by the end of May the European Commission will propose an EU-wide resettlement scheme for 20,000 migrants who have been identified by the UN refugee agency as qualifying for protection. 

However, in comments to MaltaToday, Integra Foundation director Maria Pisani dubbed the plan as ridiculous and inadequate. 

“The proposed 20,000 places is nothing short of ridiculous and the reasons for this hardly need explanation. Suffice it to say that the number of arrivals in Italy, Greece, Malta, not to mention other EU States at the external borders by far surpasses this number,” she said. 

Pisani added that the number of arrivals to the EU is “a drop in the ocean” compared to the number of refugees being hosted by countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, pointing out that the vast majority of displaced people, some 86%, are hosted by the poorest countries in the world.

“I would argue that responsibility for refugees must not be dictated by vicinity to a crisis,” the humanitarian NGO director said. 

The EU does acknowledge that while some EU countries have made a major contribution to global resettlement efforts, “others offer nothing and in many cases they are not making an alternative contribution in terms of receiving and accepting asylum requests or helping to fund the efforts of others.”

According to the proposed distribution, which takes into account GDP, size of population, unemployment rate, past numbers of asylum seekers and resettled refugees, and the efforts made on a voluntary basis by Member States, Malta is set to take in 138 migrants. 

But the recently re-elected UK home secretary, Theresa May, earned a rebuke by the commission after saying that Britain would not participate in the proposed mandatory EU resettlement scheme, indicating that some should be forcibly returned.

Writing in The Times, May argued that the EU should not encourage migrants to make the perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. 

“That is why the UK will not participate in a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation,” she wrote.

In reaction, commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said “what will make the situation worse is doing nothing. Inaction in the face of tragedy in the Mediterranean would destroy European credibility”.