Notes From the Margins…

Europe’s ‘war on people smugglers’

  • May 14, 2015
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We’ve had the war on drugs and the war on terror, and now the European Union in its infinite wisdom is preparing to add a new conflict to this less-than- illustrious tradition, in the shape of its militarised response to ‘people smuggling’ that has finally been rolled out this week.     To be precise, the EU isn’t targeting smugglers as such; its aim is to ‘to disrupt the business model of the smugglers, achieved by undertaking systematic efforts to identify, seize/capture, and destroy vessels and assets before they are used by smugglers.’

This may be the first time in history that a ‘business model’ has been identified as a military target, and the EU plans to do this by seizing and destroying the boats that smugglers use to implement their ‘model’,   seemingly oblivious to the fact that these vessels are mostly boats are already being used for a different ‘business model’, such as fishing, and that even the most cutting-edge surveillance technology would be hard-pushed to find any boats that have ‘smuggling migrants’ stamped on their hulls.

But never mind, because this is what we can expect, according to the EU’s strategy paper:

‘A presence ashore might be envisaged if agreement was reached with relevant authorities.   The operation would require a broad range of air, maritime and land capabilities. These could include: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units.

Chuck Norris and Steve Seagal eat your hearts out, because that’s the way that real tough guys respond to a humanitarian crisis.   Of course finding the ‘relevant authorities’ might be difficult in a militia-ridden country that has been comprehensively wrecked through NATO’s last visionary intervention.   But rest assured gentle reader, because the bureaucrats and diplomats insist that, just like last time,   there won’t be ‘boots on the ground’ in Libya who might get involved in firefights with the local militias.

According to Federica Mogherini, the EU”s chief foreign and security policy coordinator, ‘We are not planning in any possible way a military intervention in Libya.’   So the coming military actions won’t be ‘in Libya’, according to the paper, but conducted ‘   along the coast, in harbour or at anchor [against] smugglers” assets and vessels before their use’.

Odd that when Russian planes were flying off the channel they were invading our air space, while the EU’s business model operations may consist of a ‘presence or tasks in the Libyan territory’ without being ‘in Libya’.   Of course I might just be nitpicking here,   but the Libyan Envoy to the United Nations has also expressed his concern about the prospect of gunboats and special forces sailing into Libyan waters and setting about the smugglers, on the not unreasonable grounds that ‘The Libyan government has not been consulted by  the European Union. They have left us in  the dark about  what their intentions are, what kind of  military actions they are going to  take in  our territorial waters, so that is very worrying.’

It is, and not only for what passes for Libyan territorial sovereignty nowadays.   Because I can’t help feeling that the EU is staggering cluelessly towards something that sounds a lot like an invasion and a war.     The strategy paper doesn’t use unpleasant words like that, of course and prefers to talk of a mission “to provide surveillance, intelligence gathering and sharing, and assessment of smuggling activity towards and through the southern central Mediterranean area, and to stop, board, search and dispose of, possibly through their destruction, trafficking vessels and assets before use and thereby contribute to EU efforts to disrupt the business model of trafficking networks.’

That last phrase is eurospeak for ‘stop refugees coming here’.     And in order to fulfil this noble objective, European military forces may be forced to deal with armed groups that have nothing to do with smugglers or refugees, since:

‘The existence of heavy military armaments (including coastal artillery batteries) and military-capable militias present a robust threat to EU ships and aircraft operating in the vicinity.   The terrorist presence in the region also constitutes a security threat. Action taken ashore could be undertaken in a hostile environment.’

As in all warlike operations conducted in ‘hostile environments’ there is the risk that people will die who have nothing to do with them, especially in a situation in which ‘Boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.’

That much is true.   Italian coastguard officers always warn migrants who they rescue to remain where they are when they carry out a rescue, since their passengers tend to rush to one side when they see a rescue boat approaching, thereby risking capsizing their own vessel. Many migrants have drowned in these circumstances, so imagine what could happen if boats approach them with aggressive intent.

Or maybe don’t imagine it, because Europe’s proposed solution to its ‘migrant crisis’ is likely to prove some troubling outcomes for those who believe that a refugee crisis requires a humanitarian rather than a military response.   Unwilling to accept the people who are coming to their shores in search of help and sanctuary, European governments are preparing to use military force to keep them out, under the pretence of attacking the ‘business model’ that migrants are forced to rely on because Europe’s immigration restrictions have given them no other choice.

And if that isn’t a morally bankrupt policy then I don’t know what is.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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