22 May 2015

Member State Ministers meeting at the Defence and Foreign Affairs Council have this week approved a military operation in the Mediterranean in order to “break the business model of smugglers and traffickers of people in the Mediterranean”. This decision follows the adoption of the broader European Migration Agenda by the European Commission last week which will be put to the Council for approval at the end of June. The first phase of the military operation will be focused on gathering intelligence on smugglers’ networks and the following phase will include searching, seizing, disrupting and destroying the vessels of smugglers.

This move has been met with broad criticism from NGOs, including ECRE, some MEPs as well as members of the Italian Coastguard due to the even greater risk to which the operation may expose refugees and migrants.

ECRE has raised concerns that this operation can lead to refugees and migrants taking even more dangerous routes to reach Europe. “The solution to putting the smugglers out of business is to increase safe legal channels for migration,” Michael Diedring, ECRE Secretary General stressed.

Human Rights Watch has also pointed to the potential dangers of such an operation. “Smugglers and traffickers often show a complete disregard for human life and dignity, and they should be held to account, but military action could expose migrants and asylum seekers to serious risks,” said Judith Sunderland from Human Rights Watch.

Members of the Italian Coastguard, leading search and rescue operations, have also called for more focus on saving lives of people in distress at sea and the use of European navies in search and rescue operations, instead of military activities.  Leopoldo Manna, who heads the emergency response at the Guardia Costiera has urged “European navies to give him more control over their boats in order to streamline Mediterranean search-and-rescue activities”.

During a plenary session in Strasbourg this week, some MEPs also raised concerns about the plans to launch the so-called EUNAVFOR Med naval operation. “Military action in order to sink refugee vessels would entail collateral damage – the death of people, refugees, ships’ captains and others,” MEP Gabriele Zimmer stated. “All we are doing is pushing these people back across the Mediterranean, behind the Libyan border, where refugees are arrested, mistreated and deprived of human dignity. We push them out of sight and out of mind.”

MEPs have also voiced concerns over some of the items in the recently publish European Migration Agenda, particularly with regards to the quota system for the distribution of asylum seekers within Europe and the low number of resettlement places (20,000) proposed by the Commission. Speaking about the relocation scheme, MEP Cecilia Wikström stressed that asylum seekers cannot be distributed based solely on quantitative data, but that factors such as family ties and language should be taken into account. 

 “Factors such as ties to a member state – such as a family member residing there, existing language abilities and the strength of the existing ethnic community – should be taken into consideration to promote effective long-term community integration,” ECRE’s Michael Diedring has also argued.

The quota scheme for distribution of asylum seekers among Member States has been already dismissed by a number of EU countries such as the UK, France, Spain and Hungary.


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This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 22 May 2015. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.