Peter Sutherland, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development in a statement welcomed the European Commission’s “European Agenda on Migration” but “urge[d] [EU] Member States not to put any refugees or migrants in the line of fire, and to design any [anti-smuggling] operation in complete conformity with international law.” Sutherland urged the EU to take steps to ensure that Frontex Operations Triton and Poseidon “are at least equal in effect to Mare Nostrum” and “to make search-and-rescue the top priority…”
Tag Archives: Mare Nostrum
A plan for EU Member States to capture or destroy the boats used by people smugglers in the Mediterranean is one of ten possible courses of action that will be considered during the Extraordinary European Council Meeting on the Situation in the Mediterranean that will be held on 23 April.
The boat destruction proposal should be rejected for multiple reasons. There is no basis in law for the proposal and it would endanger lives of innocent people including migrants and fishermen, among others. It would certainly have little effect on its intended target, the people smugglers.
EU migration commissioner Avramopoulos described the plan, which has been recommended by the Foreign Affairs Council which met on 20 April, as a civil-military operation which would “capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers.” Avramopoulos reportedly compared the proposed EU boat destruction plan to Operation ATALANTA, the EU’s maritime operation against piracy off Somalia, saying that Atalanta “should inspire us for new operations against smugglers in the Mediterranean.”
As is always the case, the specific details of the proposed plan matter. There are situations where the destruction of a migrant boat under certain circumstances may be perfectly legal and otherwise appropriate. For example after a rescue operation when migrants have been safely removed from an unflagged and unseaworthy vessel, it may be appropriate for that vessel to be destroyed at sea rather than taking it in tow or leaving it adrift and thereby creating a navigational hazard. In such circumstances, there is no reason for an EU coast guard vessel, after migrants have been transferred from a migrant boat, to stand by and allow smugglers to take possession of the now empty migrant boat.
But if the EU boat destruction plan were to authorise the use of armed force to capture or destroy a smuggling boat at sea, particularly in the face of armed resistance from people smugglers, or if it were to authorise the destruction of boats at anchor in Libyan harbours, it is difficult to imagine how such a plan could be carried without endangering the lives of migrants and fisherman and thereby violating international humanitarian and human rights law.
Frontex and Italian patrol boats have already experienced armed threats at sea during rescue operations. One situation occurred on 13 April when armed people smugglers fired into the air to recover an empty migrant boat after an Italian tugboat and the Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Týr deployed by Frontex had rescued a group of migrants. The Frontex vessel did not engage the people smugglers with force and allowed the smugglers to return to Libya with the empty migrant boat. If Frontex vessels or coast guard vessels were now to be called upon to use some level of appropriate force to prevent such incidents, rescue operations would be delayed, further complicated, and the rescued migrants would be placed in danger.
In regard to the possible destruction of boats at anchor in a Libyan harbour, the EU cannot engage in the proposed civil-military operation without having a legal basis to do so. One possible source of authority would be the invocation of Chapter VII of the UN Charter by the UN Security Council, but this would require the finding that the flow of migrant boats constitutes a threat to international peace and security. While the security situation in Libya or Syria might well constitute such a threat, the large scale movement of migrants by people smugglers does not.
Chapter VII has of course been invoked to authorise the EU Operation ATALANTA after the Security Council authorised of the use of force off Somalia in international waters and in Somalian territorial waters (as well as within Somalian territory). But the legal basis for Operation ATALANTA has no relevance to the proposed EU boat destruction plan. The suppression of piracy in international waters is authorised and governed by specialized international law and customary international practice relating to the suppression of piracy. There is no equivalent basis in international law for the suppression of people smuggling.
Chapter VII was likewise invoked in 2011 to authorise the use of force by NATO in Libya. The Security Council again made the necessary determination that the situation in Libya at the time was a threat to international peace. Among the factors referenced by the Security Council in Resolution 1973 was the plight of refugees and foreign workers who were subject to violence and who were forced to flee Libya. The resolution praised Tunisia and Egypt for protecting the fleeing refugees and called on the international community to support the efforts. It would be repugnant if today the ongoing violence in Libya was somehow used as a legal basis for a use of force which would serve to trap and endanger migrants, rather than making them safer.
In addition to the serious legal questions relating to the use of force to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats, there are serious practical concerns. Take the example of the unprecedented boat disaster and the 900 deaths that occurred earlier this week. One of the likely reasons for the massive death toll was the large number of persons who were locked below the main deck of the boat. What precautions would prevent the destruction of a suspected smuggling vessel at anchor with hundreds of people below deck and out of sight? Would the EU boat destruction plan require that any capture or destruction of a suspected smuggling boat be carried out by deploying EU military personnel on the ground in Libya with the resulting ability to more closely inspect a vessel before its destruction? Or would the plan permit destruction of a suspected smuggling boat by armed drones or military aircraft? If the destruction could occur through the use of aircraft, people will be killed, and it is more likely that those who will be killed will be migrants or innocent fisherman and not the people smugglers.
The easiest targets for destruction will be the larger fishing vessels that are being used by the people smugglers. But not so long ago the smuggling boats of choice were the Zodiacs and other large or medium–sized inflatable boats powered by outboard engines. This type of boat can be easily stored in vehicles or storage buildings and quickly moved into the water when needed. It would be an easy tactical shift on the part of the people smugglers to resume the use of inflatables if the larger fishing vessels were no longer obtainable.
The European Council needs to take new and significant steps to respond to this crisis. A focus on people smugglers should certainly be something that is addressed, but while the people smugglers are taking advantage of the crisis, they are not the cause. The EU response needs to instead focus on expanded search and rescue (i.e. Mare Nostrum plus – not Operation Triton plus) and creating alternative safe paths for people to seek protection in the EU or in other appropriate countries. The boat destruction plan should be rejected.
While roughly 170,000 migrants over the past 14 months have reached Italy or been rescued and brought to Italy, according to UNHCR and Eurostat figures, very few of them are applying for asylum in Italy. Eurostat data through November 2014 indicate approximately 25,200 asylum applications from all nationalities were filed in Italy during the first six months of 2014; the number increased to approximately 27,000 during the period July-November 2014.
Eurostat data further show that only 455 asylum applications were submitted by Syrians in Italy during the January-November 2014 period, whereas over the same period over 28,000 Syrian asylum applications were submitted in Germany.
According to Italian press reports, “[n]ew figures from the UN’s refugee agency showed 25,077 people applied for asylum in Italy during the first six months of 2014. The highest number in Europe was recorded in Germany, which received 77,109 applications, followed by France (54,131) and Sweden (38,792).”
Click here for Eurostat “Asylum and new asylum applicants – monthly data”.
Click here for Eurostat “Asylum and new asylum applicants by citizenship, age and sex Monthly data (rounded)”. (Conduct search by modifying “+Citizen” option at upper right.)
Or click here for main Eurostat website and search for “asylum.”
Click here for news article.
Frontex last week released updated information on Operation Triton since its launch on 1 November. Frontex also reported on the growing use by smugglers of older freighters and cargo vessels which are being obtained primarily in south-eastern Turkey and which are being used by smugglers to transport larger numbers of migrants – as occurred yesterday with the rescue of 500-700 migrants on board the Moldovan flagged Blue Sky M between Greece and Italy.
Excerpts from the Frontex statement:
“Since the launch on November 1st of Operation Triton, the Frontex-coordinated mission in the central Mediterranean, some 11,400 migrants have been rescued, about 10,000 of them in situations characterised as “distressed,” in 77 separate Search and Rescue incidents at sea. Although significantly smaller than the number recorded during the August peak – when some 28,000 migrants were detected on this route – this level of traffic is still unprecedented for wintertime….”
“In a rapid adaptation of strategy that has become their hallmark, the smugglers have started using much larger boats. These are typically decommissioned freighters, up to 75m long, procured in the ports of south-eastern Turkey, notably Mersin: a departure point still connected by ferry to the Syrian port of Latakia, making it reachable for the tens of thousands of Syrians still fleeing the conflict in their country. The freighters, repaired and manned by crews sometimes hired from as far away as Russia, are piloted via Cyprus and Crete towards Italy, which remains the EU destination of choice for refugees from the Middle East.”
[Editor’s note: yesterday’s incident involving the rescue by Italian authorities of the Moldovan cargo ship Blue Sky M carrying hundreds of migrants would seem to be one such example; AIS tracking information from Marine Traffic shows that the Blue Sky M spent approximately five days (20-25 December) sailing in circles off the south-eastern Turkish coast before it began sailing towards western Greece. See screen capture of ship’s path from Marine Traffic below.]
“A place on a freighter from Turkey costs at least three times the price of a ticket on the usual sea route from Libya. And yet the migrants are willing to pay. Travelling this way not only circumvents the considerable danger of capsizing in a small boat in rough seas: it also avoids having to go to Libya. The departure point of choice for facilitator networks in 2014, this increasingly lawless North African nation appears to have become too dangerous an operating environment even for the criminal gangs….”
“For all its advantages, though, the new route from Turkey is not without dangers. The engines of the old ships are often highly unreliable. In the last six weeks alone, one freighter has been found drifting near Cyprus; another was rescued 30 miles off Crete; still others, off the Italian coast. The danger of shipwreck is greatly increased by the smugglers’ habit of switching off the freighter’s AIS (the Automatic Identification System with which all boats over 300 tonnes, as well as all passenger ships, are equipped). The effect is to make the boat electronically invisible to the Italian search and rescue authorities – a stratagem that buys time for the smuggling crew to escape by fast launch and thus avoid arrest.”
“Frontex has discerned another worrying recent trend: some 30% of all migrants rescued at sea in September and October were picked up by civilian shipping – the vast majority of them, 52 incidents, off the coast of Libya. The smugglers have learned to time the departure of migrant boats so that they cross the paths of merchant ships heading for the EU. When a distress call is transmitted, the merchant ship, being the nearest, is obliged by international maritime law to go to the rescue – and then disembarks them at the next port of call.”
Click here for full statement.