Shoot First

Europe’s Insane Plan to Destroy Migrant Boats

The EU says it wants to stop human smugglers by destroying vessels before they have migrants on board—but even the U.N. thinks this is a deadly idea.

05.11.15 7:25 PM ET

Human smugglers in Libya have moved more than 38,000 people across the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of 2015, killing as many as 2,000 along the way. But a new plan by the European Union to target smugglers’ vessels may soon make the journey even deadlier.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, and the EU’s plan to systematically “identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers” is case in point. The plan was hatched in emergency talks after as many as 950 migrants died on April 18, fueling promises by EU leaders to “smash the gangs” of traffickers that operate unchecked in Libya.

The plan was presented to the United Nations Security Council in New York on Monday by Federica Mogherini, an Italian who is the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy. In asking the U.N. Security Council to bless military action against the Libyan-based smuggler rings, she promised that the EU would take full responsibility for “identifying trafficking vessels for destruction before they are filled with migrants.”

But the reality is that such a tactic could become a deadly game of Russian roulette, since the traffickers don’t exactly play by the rules. 

At face value, the idea itself could be considered noble—stop the merchants of death by destroying their lethal weapons, in this case unsafe fishing vessels that are packed over capacity with desperate migrants. But everyone from the head of the United Nations to those welcoming migrants on the shores of Italy warn that just one mistake will stain Europe’s hands with the blood of every dead migrant officials say they are trying to save. 

In a far-reaching exposé from the epicenter of the trafficking ring in Zuwara, Libya, the Guardian pinpointed the biggest problem with destroying smuggler vessels. “Smuggling boats start life as fishing trawlers. The moment of transition from the latter to the former is informal and almost imperceptible to outsiders,” the author writes after interviewing several smugglers. “Smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbor of clearly marked vessels, ready to be targeted by EU air strikes. They buy them off fishermen at a few days’ notice. To destroy their potential pool of boats, the EU would need to raze whole fishing ports.”

That, of course is impossible. In fact, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the plan to blow up boats was “not appropriate.” On a visit to the Vatican last week, he said it would only lead to new problems. “Fishing is an important source of income [in Libya]. If you destroy boats, you may end up affecting the general economic capacity of people,” he said. 

Still, those in favor of the plan say targeting only the smugglers’ boats is feasible. Roberta Pinotti, Italy’s defense minister, says Italy is already using surveillance drones to monitor the smuggling operations. “We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather,” she said after the plan was announced. “The plans for military intervention are there.”

Indeed, Italy’s navy has been running a mission called Mare Sicuro, or “Safe Seas,” off the coast of Libya for more than a month now that has nothing to do with rescuing migrants. Instead, it has been patrolling around Italy’s extensive offshore oil rigs, which help distribute Libyan oil. The ships, which are ready to fire on potential jihadi militants attacking the rigs, are apparently well equipped to pinpoint small boats.

Retired Italian air force Gen. Leonardo Tricarico told Defense News that the Italian military could “borrow” American weapon-laden drones to launch the attacks and that rather than blowing up the ships, they could simply puncture the hulls to sink them. “You would need excellent intelligence in Libya,” he said. “Which Italy has.”

Many humanitarian workers fear that destroying the vessels will not destroy the trafficking business and instead push the money-hungry smugglers to find even less safe boats to meet the demand for crossings. Federico Fossi, spokesman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees in Italy, says destroying the vessels without providing an alternative safe route out puts already vulnerable people in even more danger. “Destroying the vessels without an alternative plan for those fleeing war and poverty could make it even more deadly for the refugees,” he told The Daily Beast. He also fears that pressure put on the smugglers without boats would make them find more dangerous alternatives to make the crossing. “The refugees won’t stop fleeing just because the boats are gone.”

The Vatican has also weighed in on the plan, even calling military action illegal. “Bombing a country is an act of war,” Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, the head of the Pontifical Council on Migrants, said in a statement after the plan was announced. “Who can guarantee that the weapons won’t also kill nearby people? You can destroy all the boats, but the problem of migrants fleeing wars, persecutions, and misery will still exist.”

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Even more worrisome is the fact that leaders in Libya—fractious as they are—warn against attacking. “Taking out boats without our permission would be considered a declaration of war against Libya,” Abdel-Qader Huweily, a Libyan member of parliament with Libyan Dawn, the Tripoli-based government, told the London Times. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan army, told CNN that military action would not solve the problem. “We will certainly not cooperate, because we were not involved in resolving this issue,” Haftar said. “The decision was taken without consulting the legitimate Libyan side.”

On Sunday, Libyan forces with the internationally recognized government fired on a Turkish cargo vessel as it approached the port of Derna, killing the commander and wounding several crew members. The Libyan government said it was acting on a ban restricting vessels with potential arms and supplies for Islamist militants, underscoring the Libyan government’s resolve in self-protection.

No matter what decisions the EU ultimately makes about bombing the smugglers’ boats, there is little question the trafficking business is booming. Italian authorities estimate that they rescue, on average, 100 people a day making the crossing.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned that Europe must do more than just react—it must finally come up with a comprehensive plan that ensures safety for those who deserve international protection. “We must work on legal immigration,” he said after the last emergency EU meeting. “If we close the doors, migrants will break in through the windows.”