The European Union seeks to quell a worsening refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, not with humanitarian aid but with military force.
Rescued migrants line up after disembarking from the Italian Navy vessel “Bettica” in the harbor of Augusta, Sicily, southern Italy, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. Italy pressed the European Union on Wednesday to devise concrete, robust steps to stop the deadly tide of migrants on smugglers’ boats in the Mediterranean, including setting up refugee camps in countries bordering Libya. Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti also said human traffickers must be targeted with military intervention.
UNITED NATIONS — The European Union is struggling to find solutions to an unprecedented wave of migrants arriving on its shores via smugglers’ boats in the Mediterranean. And while EU member states debate military action, a new Amnesty International report highlights the suffering of refugees in Libya, a major factor triggering the crisis.
The latest plan to quell the flow of migrants is an EU naval operation to attack the shipyards of smugglers in Libya, where refugees board unsafe vessels to attempt the Mediterranean crossing. Under the plan, orchestrated by Britain and assisted by at least nine other countries, the Italian navy would enter Libyan territorial waters and use helicopter gunships to destroy the smuggling network. The EU sought United Nations approval for the plan on Monday.
Europe’s intention to use more military intervention in Libya seems especially questionable, given that the same countries now seeking U.N. approval to attack smugglers created the crisis in the first place. It was NATO intervention and arming of rebels that led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the destabilization of Libya and other governments in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
For years, migrants seeking a better life in Europe have used the Mediterranean as a way to reach countries like Italy and Greece, but 2015 is set to become a record-breaking year for refugees, and, worse, refugee deaths at sea. Some 900 migrants drowned in a single incident last month, just one of many sinkings requiring Italian naval response in recent months.
Many refugees are fleeing the Syrian civil war but, as conditions worsen throughout the Middle East and North Africa, asylum seekers from other nations are risking their lives to reach European shores as well. The refugee crisis has inspired turmoil throughout Europe, from political conflict over aid budgets to xenophobic rallies by groups like Pegida.
Italian forces stand guard in front of the wreckage of a boat used by migrants in Catania’s Harbour, Italy, Monday, April 20, 2015.
Theoretically, the EU plan to attack smugglers would protect migrants from terrorist groups and criminal organizations, which see their cargo solely as a road to profit and care little for their safety, as recent incidents illustrate. According to the U.N. News Centre, “The stakes are high for organized crime – moving people illegally across borders is today more lucrative than the sale of illicit arms and drugs.”
However, Magda Mughrabi, Libya Researcher at Amnesty International, expressed her concern at the risks to human rights.
Because smugglers use a wide variety of older, poorly maintained craft in their work, Mughrabi told Democracy Now!, “it is unclear at this stage how the European Union or countries taking part in any such proposed action would differentiate between fishing boats and smugglers’ boats.”
Further, the plan does not differentiate between smugglers and traffickers. Mughrabi is the author of a new report from Amnesty, detailing the terrible conditions faced by refugees in Libya and during their attempts to reach asylum. While some smugglers keep their word and load migrants onto rickety boats bound for Italy or Greece, others kidnap their clients. In captivity, migrants are often raped and abused, or forced to pay bribes or ransom money in return for their freedom.
While European nations supporting the military plan have made vague gestures toward offering an alternate route to asylum, Mughrabi stressed that most have no other option but to enter into agreements with smugglers, and are fully aware of the potential dangers of the journey.
“For migrants and refugees, people that do not have passports because they were confiscated by them either in immigration detention centers in Libya or stolen from them by criminal groups or, you know, militias, they do not meet the visa requirements [for legal travel],” Mughrabi told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman. “They can’t flee Libya through land borders so … their only way out is really by boat.”
Watch the Democracy Now! interview with Magda Mughrabi below: