The European Union (EU) is attempting to gain backing from the United Nations (UN) for its new policy for migrants at sea. This policy would allow the interception and destruction of vessels used for trafficking people across the Mediterranean.
This policy comes amidst the current ‘migration crisis’. Huge numbers of migrants travel from North Africa each year hoping to settle in Europe. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that 21,000 migrants have reached Italy this year already. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that migrants headed for Italy, Greece and Malta are predominantly from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan. Migrants flee their own countries for many reasons, but usually due to conflict and fear of persecution, however, this voyage is not always one with a happy ending. An estimated 3,279 migrants have died en route in 2014 and 1,754 have died already in 2015.
Until the end of October 2014, there was a different response to this crisis. Italy ran Operation Mare Nostrum – a search and rescue operation by which Italian authorities managed to rescue about 100,000 people between 2013 and 2014. It was documented as a success, the IOM calling it “heroic” [http://eea.iom.int].
This Italian mission was replaced by an EU operation called Operation Triton. It is, however, more limited than Operation Mare Nostrum. It receives less funding (3 million euros, as opposed to 9 million which was invested in Nostrum), and merely focuses on patrolling the Italian coast. There is no proactive search to rescue migrants. As a result of this, the operation has been criticised by human rights groups and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres [http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=54dc80f89&query=africa%20migrants].
Currently, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is trying to get the support of the UN to permit naval forces to intercept and destroy vessels used for trafficking migrants. She explained that, “it is not so much the destruction of the boats, but the destruction of the business models of the [smugglers’] networks themselves” [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/migrant-crisis-eu-ministers-to-establish-naval-force-to-destroy-trafficker-boats-10259189.html].
It is a controversial proposition requiring consent from the UN to allow forces to enter the coasts of States from which these migrant ships emerge. Under international law, State A cannot enter the territorial waters of State B and destroy its vessels. This could, however, be permitted by the UN. Nevertheless, this would require backing from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Given Russia and China’s current opposition to the plans, it is unlikely that they will pass.
Opposition to the EU’s policy is more widespread. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has criticised this military solution [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9955eaa2-edaf-11e4-a894-00144feab7de.html] to what is effectively a humanitarian problem. The view shared by human rights campaigners is that the EU’s new plans will not immediately secure the safe passage of peoples to curb migrant deaths.