The EU has launched ‘Operation Sophia’ in the southern Mediterranean designed to intercept boats smuggling migrants. While up until now, the EU has focused on surveillance and rescue operations, under the new operation, European security forces will be able to board, search, seize and divert naval vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling. In the first nine months of 2016, more than 130,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe from the north African coast, of whom more than 2,700 have drowned. Meanwhile, a different route – crossing overland into Turkey before taking a short journey by sea to the EU’s member Greece and then heading to central and northern European countries – has increasingly been used by Syrian migrants and refugees who are fleeing their country’s civil war.
However, experts have already warned that the limits of ‘Operation Sophia’ are more than obvious. EU warships will have to sail only in international waters, which means that they will simply have to stay 12 nautical miles away from the Libyan coast. Since on some days, as many as 20 smugglers’ ships packed with migrants set sail from the Libyan coast, many are skeptical as to what practical difference six EU warships accompanied by a few helicopters and drones will make to the sheer number of journeys begun by smugglers and migrants. Eugenio Ambrosi, a senior migration expert of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has warned that the “transnational criminal rings of traffickers are the same as those involved in weapons and drugs”, stressing that if the EU’s efforts are focused only on the boats, “the nucleus of the criminals remains untouched”.
Aware of the limitations of its new mission, the EU eventually hopes to have an approval of either the UN Security Council or Libya itself to be able to launch a third, more aggressive phase of its operation within Libya’s own territorial waters. The EU launched the first phase of its operation – EUNavfor Med – earlier in June, which was limited only to naval surveillance to detect smugglers’ boats and the monitoring of smuggling patterns from Libya towards Italy and Malta. The currently ongoing second phase – ‘Operation Sophia’ – has been named after a baby born on a EU ship that rescued her mother off the coast of Libya in August.