EU foreign and defence ministers recently approved an armed maritime mission targeting migrant smugglers operating in Libya, in the hope of stemming the flow of irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. The mission’s ultimate – and rather controversial – goal is to destroy smugglers’ boats before they can be used, in Libya, and even place warships in Libyan waters to further deter smugglers. The United Kingdom was asked to draft a UN Security Council resolution on behalf of the EU in order to create a legal basis for the use of force in Libya, and EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini promised to seek permission from Libyan authorities for the operation. Europe’s reaction to the April 2015 migrant shipwreck has been unusually quick, yet the predictable consequences of this initiative are not only strategically ineffective and problematic from a human rights perspective, but also diplomatically dangerous.

From a strategic point of view, destroying boats used by smugglers to ferry migrants to Italy fails to address the root cause of smuggling: the lack of legal channels for desperate people to flee conflict and persecution. Refugees turn to smugglers only because there is no other way for them to reach Europe, and reaching Europe is usually their only option due to hostile environments and poor conditions in areas closer to their countries of origin. Sinking boats will not make refugees disappear; they have nowhere else to go. Smugglers know this, and will satisfy that demand with more dangerous (likely improvised, inflatable) vessels on which to pack even more people if it becomes more difficult for them to obtain regular boats. Establishing a naval presence just off the coast of Libya, as the EU plan foresees, would do nothing but embolden smugglers to send migrants off on the cheapest equipment possible, precisely towards European navy ships a short distance away, which would be required to rescue the people they were meant to keep at bay.

Human rights considerations should play a central role in any initiative that directly affects refugees’ lives, yet the obvious consequences of preventing vulnerable civilians from leaving a conflict zone which most don’t even belong to do not seem to concern European leaders. Indeed, the EU is even seeking to cooperate with Libyan authorities in order to stop migrants, despite widespread, well-documented human rights violations perpetrated by government and militia forces against refugees. Irregular migrant prison camps founded during the Gaddafi era and partially financed by the EU continue to exist as sources of income for prison guards and local militias, which extort money from migrants’ family members back home. Renewing cooperation with Libyan authorities now will only allow such practices to continue on a larger scale, and will allow Libya to blackmail Europe for counter-smuggling funding, as already occurred under Gaddafi.

The diplomatic consequences of Europe’s naval mission render it almost reckless, considering how much risk Europe is willing to take for a deeply questionable outcome. EU High Representative Mogherini pledged to seek permission from what the EU considers to be Libya’s “legitimate” government, which is based in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk and only controls around half of Libya’s territory. However, she also stated that the EU would work with rival groups, out of necessity. Most smuggling activities take place on Libya’s western coast, which is mainly controlled by the rival Tripoli-based “Libya Dawn” alliance, in addition to other militias and a growing Islamic State presence. By cooperating with rival factions in Libya’s messy civil war, Europe will sabotage moderate nationalists by giving legitimacy to separatists and radical militias. Furthermore, seeking approval for a UN Security Council resolution requires negotiation with veto powers such as Russia, which will certainly want something in return for its approval. Loosening sanctions and granting concessions on the Ukraine conflict are clearly the most likely requests.

Instead of focusing on the causes of migration and facilitating asylum for those who qualify for it, Europe’s leaders are convinced that the issue can be solved by dealing with the symptoms alone. Yet this approach is short-sighted and its consequences should not be ignored. It is refreshing to see European countries cooperate so efficiently on foreign policy, but the result of this cooperation is likely to do far more harm than good – well beyond the immediate objective of reducing irregular immigration.

By Marco Funk

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