Migrant Crisis

Europe's Conflicted Gunboat Diplomacy

Migrants reach Crete Nov dpa
A group of migrants who were rescued near Crete.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If people smugglers start attacking European Union vessels in the Mediterranean, the seas will become more dangerous for everyone.

  • Facts


    • Next week the European Union officially begins its joint naval mission in the Mediterranean.
    • According to the International Organization for Migration there are currently nine naval vessels in the Mediterranean.
    • The E.U. has created an ad hoc navy before, which was successful in tackling piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
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In February, Italian coast guards rescued 1,000 migrants from a leaky, unseaworthy boat in the Mediterranean.

As they were towing the empty boat, men brandishing Kalashnikov rifles sailed from the Libyan coast to reclaim their vessel. The Italians offered no resistance and the attackers sailed off with the boat. In April, the Italians coast guards were attacked again from Libya.

Next week, the European Union officially begins a joint naval mission in the Mediterranean. It has three contradictory goals: To help secure Europe’s coastal borders and stop illegal migrants coming through; to rescue migrants as they attempt the perilous sea crossing, and to destroy the vessels of smugglers transporting people for money into unsafe waters.

But Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the European sea border patrol operation, which is called Frontex, said he expects these E.U. forces to have another role: Providing extra security for the E.U. coast guards.

“Perhaps we will see more of these in the future,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday in Berlin. “We may need the protection of the military. Of course this is not our main priority.”

“Frontex will not be present in Libyan waters, only military boats will sail there, so I do not believe our staff will be in danger.”

Fabrice Leggeri, Frontex chief

The Mediterranean is growing more dangerous.

The people smugglers, who pile migrants onto boats from the Libyan coast, are operating out of a country where the rule of law has broken down. As more and more naval boats enter the waters, there is a risk smugglers ferrying migrants will carry guns to protect their assets.

In theory, this will not happen. Frontex civilian vessels will keep to safe waters within 30 miles of the European Union coast. Only military vessels will venture closer to the Libyan coast. “Frontex will not be present in Libyan waters, only military boats will sail there, so I do not believe our staff will be in danger,” Mr. Leggeri told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

But in reality, coastal borders are huge and porous and it won’t be easy to keep armed smugglers from search-and-rescue boats.

The European Union has dragged its feet on mass migration but was forced to act after 800 people died in April when the ship they were in collided with a Portuguese freighter that had been sent by Italian coast guards to rescue them.

The accident was the worst disaster in modern Mediterranean maritime history and prompted a Europe-wide rethink on how to deal with the growing problem of illegal seabound immigration.

The solution was to triple the budget of Frontex, the European border agency, and to bolster its two programs: Triton, which deals with sea borders, and Poseidon, which protects land borders, in this case the borders with Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria.

But the E.U. commissioner for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, wants to go further. She sought out United Nations’ approval for a pan-European naval force that can destroy smuggling boats. Her position is that Europe does not just need to rescue and assist migrants who arrive on its shores, but to combat those who send them.

Frontex has no military vessels of its own, and there is no European navy, so to speak, so E.U. member states have sent their own ships. This has created a flotilla of aircraft carriers and frigates attempting to carry out rescue missions, for which the military vessels were not designed.


Mediterranean Rescue Operations-01


According to the International Organization for Migration, a non-profit group, there are nine naval vessels currently patrolling in the Mediterranean, from Italy, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Ireland and Sweden, along with an array of coast guard vessels, two boats from the Italian Guardia di Finanza finance department police force, and a brace of private ships run by charities.

Some of these are aircraft carriers, like the HMS Bulwark, a 19,000-ton British assault ship designed to sail in hostile waters. Last Sunday, it rescued 1,200 migrants and took them to the port of Catania in Sicily. Since it sailed to the Mediterranean a month ago, the aircraft carrier has rescued over 2,700 people.

Other boats have a confused mandate. Germany has sent one frigate and a smaller ship, but these vessels cannot join Triton due a quirk in Germany’s constitution that forbids their use in military activities. That has confined the boats to search-and-rescue operations.

The E.U. has created an ad hoc navy once before, to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Under operation Atalanta, E.U. forces destroyed some grounded vessels they believed were being used by pirates.

But Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British group, points out that pirates are criminals, which justifies pursuing them with military means. Migrants are civilians, and destroying vessels used to transport them may ultimately be counter-productive.

“Migrants in boats are symptoms, not causes, of the problem. Destroying Libyan fishing boats ashore, and thus any potential alternative business model to make a living, is counter-productive,” Mr. Roberts said. “In all likelihood it would drive migrants to make crossings in unstable, inflatable boats that can be hidden in the back of a car before use.”

More and more people are crossing into Europe from Greece.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that 102,000 migrants reached Europe by sea so far this year. Of those, 54,660 migrants reached Italy, usually leaving from Libya, while 46,150 migrants reached Greece, leaving mostly from neighboring Turkey. A total of 53,000 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean.

Mr. Leggeri  said the number of migrants arriving in Greece has jumped 500 percent in the last year and the E.U. must provide more support for Greek islands dealing with immigrants.

“These islands do not have enough border guards and no accommodation to house these migrants,” he said.  “In January most migrants were coming to us via Libya. Now there are many coming via Turkey and Greece.”

Meera Selva is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: selva@handelsblatt.com

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