UN urged to back military force against smugglers

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Monday appealed for UN backing for Europe's plan to confront the Mediterranean migrant crisis by using military force against smugglers.

UN urged to back military force against smugglers
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini appealed for UN backing for the EU's plan to use military force against people smugglers. Photo: Maxim Shipenkov/AFP

Mogherini addressed the UN Security Council as it prepares to endorse a controversial European Union plan aimed at stemming a record tide of refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

“Our first priority is to save lives and prevent further loss of lives at sea,” Mogherini said.

“We cannot do it alone. This has to be a common global effort.

“That is why we count on your support to save lives and dismantle criminal organizations that are exploiting people's desperation.”

This year alone, more than 1,800 people have drowned when boats run by migrant smugglers have capsized in the Mediterranean, a 20-fold increase over the same period last year.

Already 2015 is shaping up as the deadliest ever for refugees seeking to reach Europe through the Mediterranean.

Describing the migrant flow as “unprecedented,” Mogherini called for an “exceptional response” and stressed that after many years of haphazard efforts, Europe was finally taking matters in hand.

The EU plan due to be finalized at a Brussels meeting on May 18th has run into resistance from Russia and African countries that see it as too heavily focused on military action.

Destroying smugglers' boats

The most controversial component would involve seizing and destroying boats used by migrant smugglers, mostly based in Libya, which has been engulfed in chaos since the fall of Moamer Qaddafi four years ago.

The Security Council's EU members are working with Italy on a draft resolution that would allow for the “use of all necessary means to seize and dispose of the vessels, including the destruction and rendering inoperable and unusable,” diplomats said.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin has said the measure to destroy vessels was “going too far,” arguing that smugglers rent boats from local owners who are often unaware of the scheme.

After a closed-door session with council diplomats, Mogherini nevertheless sounded confident, saying she found a “high-level of understanding” and that a future UN resolution was “possible.”

The resolution would be drafted under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, which allows the use of force and would give an EU maritime force the right to act in Libyan territorial waters.

In addressing the council, Mogherini offered assurances that a naval force would not seek to inject more chaos in Libya where rival governments are battling militias.

“We don't and we won't act against anyone but in partnership with all,” she said.

Increasing refugee quotas

Mogherini also pledged that “no one will be sent back against their will” if the boats loaded with asylum-seekers are intercepted at sea.

Human rights and aid organizations are complaining that the EU plan places too much attention on a military response and should focus instead on broadening legal avenues for migrants to reach Europe.

At a summit last month, EU leaders agreed they had to act in the face of the mounting death toll, committing more money for search and rescue missions and preparing action against the smugglers.

On Wednesday, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker is due to present a new migration policy plan that includes a provision that distributes the migrant burden more fairly across the bloc.

Diplomatic sources said Juncker may also set at 20,000 a EU-wide quota for refugees despite Britain insisting this should be done only on a voluntary basis.

Germany is backing the proposal to spread the refugee burden more fairly among member states, but there are deep divisions within the 28-nation EU.

“Juncker wants a required quota of refugees but this is practically seen as a declaration of war” by certain member states, one top European official said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to travel to Brussels on May 26 to address the European parliament and persuade member-states to offer more safe havens to refugees fleeing conflict and poverty.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.