The EU’s Hunt for Mediterranean Smugglers

By: Patrick Foley

The European Union recently launched its first military operation against smugglers illegally transporting migrants in the Mediterranean region. Ministers in Luxembourg met on Wednesday to discuss the operation, and agreed that the problem should first be addressed in international waters, until the EU is granted permission to enter Libya’s waters.

The ships and air-crafts required to conduct the initial intelligence gathering mission are scheduled to be available for the operation within the next week, officials said. According to EU officials, the operation is needed to curb the number of deaths at sea by tackling the networks of people-trafficking at the hearts of those networks in Libya. The Libyan government has confirmed that. Zuara, a town near the Tunisian border, is an attractive departing spot for migrants hoping to reach Europe, and one of Libya’s busiest smuggling hubs, but the government maintains that they are actively fighting the human trafficking issue nonetheless. Officially, there has not been a single smuggler arrested in Zuara in 2015, nor has there been a single arrested smuggler in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Nasser Azam heads a new unit in charge of illegal migration in Tripoli. He says last month the unit apprehended roughly 2,000 undocumented migrants in two weeks. Those recently incarcerated have joined 25,000 currently in detention in Libya. Their crime, Azam says, is being in the country illegally. He believes that arresting them serves a purpose in the fight against human trafficking. “Most of the migrants are only here in transit before they gather enough money to go to Europe,” Azam explains. “So by arresting a large number of them, we are also disturbing the smugglers’ business. Because now it’s more difficult for them to bring in thousands of people and find a place to stay for them until they get on a boat. So we are making their job harder. And we think that if we carry on working that way, it would eventually end the business.”

The European Union has been looking to the United Nations for support against the smugglers, who have profited greatly from the ongoing turmoil within Libya. The traffickers have turned significant profits from their illicit operations, which often place migrants at risk aboard unsafe vessels that are abandoned by their crews. “The targets are not the migrants,” said Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “The targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths.”

West African immigrants seeking passage through Libya who have been arrested by units like Azam’s say they’ve been arrested only because they’re at the bottom of the food chain. They say they are targeted disproportionately because they are the most vulnerable, and the easiest to catch. Locking up a few thousand, they say, won’t make any difference as long as smugglers are free to continue their job. “You have to fight the matter at the roots,” Amine blurts out. “And they are the roots of the problem too! The smugglers are working with the authorities, with those higher up.”

The concerns expressed by those immigrants incarcerated in Libya capture the biggest criticism for the EU’s anti-smuggler, military operation. A record of roughly 219,000 people crossed the Mediterranean last year while about 2,000 have died or are missing, with Eritrea, Somalia and Syria among the countries from which came the largest groups. With such a vast and unregulated market for human trafficking, and the freedom to charge exorbitant prices from those being transported, it will never be effective to try and arrest every smuggler and migrant. With the ongoing conflicts in the Mediterranean region, creating security for those people living in the area is the only way to decrease the supply of immigrants and the demand for smugglers.