Militarising the EU Migration Plan: A Flawed Approach

A military approach alone will not solve the migration crisis in the Mediterranean

The plan announced by EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini in May to combat human smuggling in the Mediterranean demonstrated a failure of EU advisers, ministers and bodies to understand the entirety of the problem to be addressed, to seek relevant lessons on counter-migration policy, or to develop the kind of comprehensive  approach that could stand a chance of working. Unfortunately, it seems that the initial plan put forward to the UN has become a cross that political and military leaders across Europe will now have to bear – and it will not work.

This plan foresees, and seeks UN authorisation for, military operations to inspect and possibly destroy traffickers’ boats off the Libyan coast. The headquarters of the naval mission required to do this is already being established in Rome under the command of Italian naval officer Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino; a man selected, apparently, because of his success in commanding the EU counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. He is charged with executing Mogherini’s plan to ‘identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers’, later amended to the use of ‘methods that would destroy the business model of traffickers’. Credendino has been allocated €11.82 million for the initial two months of activity, with a twelve-month mandate – one assumes this is renewable or he really will have problems.

Few details of the operation, to be conducted by a military group known as EUNAVFOR Med, have been made public following the initial announcements in Brussels. The original plan for seaborne operations had three phases: surveillance, interdiction and network destruction. It should be noted that only the first phase of the plan was authorised by EU foreign ministers in May; the subsequent actions are to be discussed by the same group and potentially implemented over the summer.

As a whole, such a plan is likely to involve flooding areas around the Libyan coast with radar and planes to identify potential smugglers and to board those vessels involved, removing the migrants, arresting crew members, and impounding or sinking the boats when everyone is removed. Beyond this, the wording of the prospective resolution to be considered by the UN Security Council also sought permission to destroy vessels ashore in a similar model to that used in Somalia – that is, before their use in illegal activity. How this is to occur without crossing the EU red line of putting people ashore in Libya is not clear. And without those people, making a full inspection of the vessels to ensure that the below-decks area is clear before destruction (presumably by aircraft or drones) will be challenging.

Similarly difficult will be proposed police action to destroy the business model of the criminal groups: no one is quite sure how criminal activity can be investigated from several hundred miles away to prove that there is a case to answer. Even those with only a basic understanding of naval operations thus see significant flaws in the plan.

Yet beyond practical challenges relating to the fulfilment of the mission’s mandate, a number of further factors, pertaining to the plan’s very conception, mean that it will likely fail.

The first relates to the proposal’s basis for action. The EU military plan was drawn up on the basis of experience gained from Operation Atalanta, the EU counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, where activities included destruction of vessels ashore. Yet piracy poses a clear threat to security, peace and good order, meaning that the basis for action – Chapter VII of the UN Charter – could be fairly implemented. Migration does not pose such threats and it would be a struggle for any Western institution to make the case that it did, despite Mogherini’s recent assertions to the contrary. The UN therefore has a problem in finding a legal basis for the proposed EU plan.

Second, a fundamental issue with the plan is that it does not address root causes: migrants in boats are symptoms, not causes, of the problem. Destroying Libyan fishing boats ashore, and thus potential alternative, legitimate business models for those Libyans engaged in illegal activities, is counterproductive. And, in all likelihood, it will drive migrants to make crossings in unstable, inflatable boats that can be hidden in the back of a car before use. These vessels just might make a successful crossing in calm seas, but not in harsher weather. As such, destroying vessels ashore could plausibly increase the death toll in the medium term. Meanwhile, with the majority of migrants not from Libya, it is clear that upstream engagement to combat the causes of migration and nefarious activity would likely be more successful in the longer term.

Third, the plan fails to account for political issues surrounding the authorisation necessary to conduct military operations ashore in Libya, in the latter’s territorial seas and on the high seas. Such actions require permissions from the national authority. With Libya engulfed in civil war, which fighting faction the EU would approach for such permissions is not clear and would draw conclusions of bias from the side not consulted. Far from clarifying the EU position, such action would add confusion in an already uncertain and unstable region.

Fourth, neglected is a consideration of the fact that the plan will divert from other priorities: the Libyan coastline and search area are large. Whilst technically possible, covering this great an area requires large numbers of ships and planes. Yet European navies are much smaller now than even a decade ago, and even a technically advanced vessel cannot conduct migration surveillance and response as well as countering Russian submarines in the Baltic, pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Iranian aggression in the Strait of Hormuz. In essence, supporting such an action would require national politicians to prioritise this issue ahead of other national-security matters and allocate scare military assets accordingly.

Finally, there is a clear failure to apply lessons from further afield. Indeed, there are a number of better precedents on which to base anti-migration operations at sea than Atalanta. Both the US Coast Guard (in the Caribbean) and the Royal Australian Navy have significant experience in such operations, gleaned over the last twenty years of countering seaborne migration from numerous states towards their respective nations. Both organisations could have provided useful and relevant advice in terms of policy and tactics. However, it does not appear that there was any desire to seek experience beyond EU member states. As a result, the plan lacks many features of the successful operations conducted to date by the US and Australia, notably the status of repatriation as the basis for operations.

Every successful at-sea counter-migration policy to date has had at its core the policy of repatriation. For the EU this will be challenging since the vast majority of migrants come from across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, using Libya purely as a stepping stone on their journeys. Without accepting the possibility of repatriation, the EU is putting member states in a situation in which they cannot win: they will be forced to accept the inflow of people in any case and can do nothing to dissuade other migrants from starting their journeys.

Lessons from Australia and the US show that repatriation to the country of origin can have an impact on people flows – albeit not an immediate one. Enforced repatriation is not straightforward, however: mistakes are easily made and those with legitimate claims can be overlooked. This means that such a policy is often met with hostility in the media and by humanitarian organisations; the Australian government is often criticised for taking such a hard line over migrants, including by the EU, which might appear hypocritical if it implemented such a policy itself.

Yet as long as the EU plan makes no allowance for repatriation, Europe will continue to lack a deterrent to halt the flow of migrants. In these circumstances, the reality of any naval mission looks more like an expanded search-and-rescue operation than an effective interdiction of migration.

Yet even the existing EU at-sea search-and-rescue operation (an extension of the Italian naval operation Mare Nostrum) is grossly short of vessels and aircraft to conduct its mission. The sea area covered is large and resources are small, even if member states were to put at the operation’s disposal their entire navies. Neither is the use of expensive and scarce war-fighting platforms viable in the longer term. In this context, there is, potentially, a role for commercial force providers to service the EU’s requirements.

Indeed, picking up people from rafts does not require warships; rather, it requires constabulary-type vessels, some medical and manpower staff, and an ability to safely embark hundreds of people for short journeys. A variety of non-government commercial providers could meet this need, some using ex-coast guard vessels designed for precisely this type of operation, which could be conducted more cheaply than by using flagged warships. Alongside inevitable challenges, there would also be potential legal benefits to such a plan. While such vessels would need to be authorised by states to undertake such actions, their use might prevent migrants from seeking asylum as soon as they came on board.

The drawback of such a plan to a military is the lost opportunity for intelligence collection. Any plan to destroy the business model of smugglers relies on investigation and prosecution. Such skills and authorities cannot be invested in commercial providers, and would require the embarkation of police officers on the commercial vessels. However, the same claim can be made of the current military solution: are naval officers really those best placed to lead investigations into international smuggling, or is this a police action that might also require co-operation with authorities abroad?

In the end, all of this links back to the crux of the problem, which remains unaddressed by any of this activity. Even unpicking the business model of the smugglers does not address the core problem – that is, the fact that people are migrating from all over Africa and the Middle East because of conditions in their own countries. Nothing in the EU’s plan seeks to address this. Even if the EU naval force managed to dismantle the criminal groups currently operating in Libya, migrants would find another port, coast, boat or operator to get them to Europe – perhaps to Spain rather than Italy, but to Europe nonetheless. Unless the EU considers forced repatriation to originating states as an option, naval forces will be fighting the increasing tide of human migration. And probably losing.

Peter Roberts
Senior Research Fellow in Sea Power and Maritime Studies, RUSI.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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