Five Reasons Why Militarising the EU Migration Plan Will Not Work

With news of regular tragedies involving migrants awash on Europe’s shores, the European Union is promising to respond to these through military means. But the political will just does not exist in Europe; neither can the hurdles be overcome easily.

On Monday 11 May, EU Foreign Policy supremo Federica Mogherini went to New York to brief the Security Council on migration problems in the Mediterranean.  Initial reporting indicated that Ms Mogherini would propose a Resolution for permission for military units to ‘identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers’.  This was later amended to, ‘methods that would destroy the business model of traffickers’. 

Last week, UN Secretary General Ban Qi Moon stated that, ‘There was no military solution to migrants crossing the Mediterranean’.  Comments made during the subsequent formal debate on 11 May support such a view.  So how could a military solution (central to the initial draft resolution drawn up by the UK) potentially work?

Gunships and Gunboats

A military plan for such an operation would be to flood the areas around the Libyan coast with radar and planes, to identify potential smugglers, to board those vessels, to remove the migrants, arrest the crew, and impound or sink the boats when everyone was removed.  Yet the wording of the resolution sought permission to destroy vessels ashore in a similar model to that used in Somalia, i.e., before they were being used for illegal activity.  Yet we are not sure how to do that without making a full inspection of the vessels to ensure that the below decks area is clear of people.

There is no doubt that an EU maritime force could conduct these actions provided the force had sufficient numbers of vessels and aircraft.  Yet there are five key factors that could see this fail:

1. Basis for action:  The EU military plan was based on experience gained from the EU anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden (Operation Atalanta), where activities included destruction of vessels ashore.  Yet piracy poses a threat to security, peace and good order – indeed piracy incidents posed a threat to life on many occasions.  As such, the basis for action (Chapter 7 of the UN Charter) could be fairly implemented.  Migration does not pose such threats and it would be a struggle for any Western institution to make the case that it did, despite statements made by Mogherini.  The UN therefore has a problem in finding a legal basis for the proposed EU plan.

2.  The plan:  There are better precedents on which to base anti-migration operations at sea. Both the US Coast Guard experience in the Caribbean and the Royal Australian Navy have significant experience in such operations: both organisations could have provided useful and relevant advice both in terms of policy and tactics.  However, the basis of those operations is repatriation – not something within the EU plan.  Nor does it appear there was a desire to seek wider experience outside EU member states.

3. Symptoms, not causes: What problem is the plan addressing? 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.  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.  These vessels just might make a successful crossing in calm seas, but not in harsher weather.  Destroying vessels ashore could plausibly increase the death toll in the medium term.  Sinking vessels that have been used for illegal activity at sea is allowed for under certain conditions already without the need for a UN mandate.  This activity can be undertaken when they pose a ‘hazard to navigation’, an action in the gift of good mariners and are regularly undertaken by coalition nations in the Caribbean.  The majority of migrants are not from Libya: upstream engagement to combat the causes of migration and nefarious activity would likely be more successful in the longer term.

4. Geography:  The outline resolution sought authorisation to conduct military operations ashore, in Libyan territorial seas and on the high seas.  Such actions need permissions from the national authority.  Which fighting faction the EU would approach for such permissions is not clear and would draw conclusions of bias from the side not consulted.  Far from clarifying the EU position, such action would add complexity to an already uncertain and unstable region.

5. Other priorities:  The Libyan coastline and search area are large.  Whilst technically possible, covering that much area requires lots of ships and aeroplanes.  But navies are much smaller now than even a decade ago, and even a very technically advanced vessel cannot be conducting migration surveillance and response as well as countering Russian submarines in the Baltic, pirates in the Gulf of Aden, or Iranian aggression in the Straits of Hormuz. In essence, the requirement to support such an action would require national politicians to prioritise this issue ahead of other national security issues and allocate scare military assets accordingly.

In sum, a hard-line military activity to prevent migration into Europe across the Mediterranean could work: but it would involve killing migrants and enforced repatriation. 

There does not appear to be sufficient political appetite for this, indeed comments by Mogherini herself indicate that there would be no repatriation of anyone who did not want to return.  The political will just does not exist in Europe; neither can the hurdles be overcome easily.  The outcome looks likely to be more of a Mare Nostrum plus (an expanded search and rescue operation), than a larger Operation Triton (migration interdiction).  And that is not a long-term solution.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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