Migrant Watch

Can military action stop what military action started?

Migrants – is military action the answer?

In trying to find a solution to the migrant problem, the EU is looking at limited military intervention, which could have unforeseen consequences.

The European Union’s (EU) latest plans to address the migration influx from North Africa, particularly Libya, include “pro-active military involvement”.

Libya is the departure point for thousands of desperate migrants trying to get to Europe. It all started after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in a 2011 revolt, backed by military backing from Western powers.  

New naval strategy

It is planned to launch a new naval strategy late next month, targeting those involved in smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean into Southern Europe.

The plan is to stop the movement of migrants by identifying, locating, intercepting and capturing smugglers. The aim is to disrupt the smugglers’ ‘business model’ by destroying their boats at the point of departure off the Libyan coast.  

To comply with international law the EU is seeking United Nations (UN) authorisation for these naval operations to take place in Libya’s territorial waters.

The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, visited the UN in New York seeking support for a draft resolution by Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force to “restore international peace and security”.

Without UN authorisation the naval mission, to be headquartered in Rome and led by an Italian officer, will not have the mandate to intervene in Libyan territorial waters to seize vessels.


Different factions in control of different coastal areas in Libya have rejected the plan and Russia expressed reservations.

Various NGOs and official organisations such as the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), also expressed reservations, arguing that if successful, “an unintended consequence of this mission is that it may even lead to more deaths. If there is a shortage of vessels, even more people will be packed into them. There is even a possibility, given the desperate situation these people face, that they might try to construct their own boats”.

The smugglers also are not a single cohesive organisation and getting to the kingpins a near impossibility.

The EU indicated that in the absence of approval it will nevertheless still mount a military mission in the Mediterranean outside of Libyan territorial waters and airspace.

The model and dangers

The EU is on record that it plans to use the successful anti-piracy ‘Atalanta’ operation off the Somalian coast, which included deploying warships and surveillance aircraft, as model for future Mediterranean migrant operations.

Leading countries in the EU — Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — have already promised to deploy warships.

Although denied by senior EU officials the 19-page strategy paper for the naval mission also provides for the deployment of ground forces in Libya to destroy smugglers’ vessels and land assets.

This poses a clear danger of an escalation in military conflict. Confrontation between EU troops and Islamic State (ISIS) affiliates, controlling certain coastal areas in Libya and benefiting financially from the illegal migrant smuggling, could escalate into reprisal terrorist attacks in Europe.

But pressure has been mounting for something drastic to be done.

The high season for sea migration only starts in June, but some 51 000 migrants have already entered Europe this year by crossing the Mediterranean. Italy took the brunt with 30 500 migrants landing on its shores and about 1 800 people have drowned.

It is estimated that close to a million desperate people will try to enter Europe before year’s end.


The migrant conundrum is a gift for rightist parties across Europe. Latching onto increasingly anti-migrant sentiment in Europe, these parties are experiencing significant growth in popular support.

Unintended, the warnings and concerns aired by security and military establishments in Europe that ISIS and other militant groups are exploiting the situation to infiltrate members into Europe, fuel the anti-migrant sentiment.

Confirming that this is no idle alarm, Italian authorities announced they had arrested an illegal Moroccan immigrant suspected of involvement in the deadly terrorist attack by Islamic radicals on a museum in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, in March 2015. Twenty-four tourists, mostly Europeans, were killed. 

Quota system

In what is a familiar term to South Africans, the 28-member EU is looking at a quota system in an attempt to deal with the migrant problem.

But, unlike with broad EU consensus for military intervention, the proposals to share the immigration burden are highly controversial and divisive.

Simultaneous to the naval mission a plan was put forward to legally accommodate 20 000 refugees in the EU over the next two years. Although commendable, it seems rather inadequate, since some 600 000 migrants sought refuge in the EU in 2014.

The reasoning behind the quota proposal is to spread out the burden of housing hundreds of thousands of people among EU members while their claims for asylum are processed.  

Currently, asylum seekers are the responsibility of the country where they first arrive. Countries close to migrant crossing routes, such as Italy, Spain, Malta and Greece, have complained of shouldering the bulk of Europe's refugee crisis.

A few other EU states, notably Germany and Sweden, also share the burden and between them Germany and Sweden currently accommodate almost half the asylum seekers. Berlin predicts that the numbers this year could almost double to about 400 000 in Germany alone.

Under the proposed quota system the number of refugees sent to each EU member country would be decided according to a “redistribution key” based on GDP, population size, unemployment rate and past numbers of asylum seekers admitted.

If agreed, France will take 14% of migrants reaching EU’s shores, 18% would be assigned to Germany, Italy will get 12% and Spain 9%.

But, as in South Africa, the quota system is also causing tension and disagreement.    

Britain, although receiving only the fifth largest number of applications for asylum in the EU, has rejected any quota, exercising an established exemption from EU migration policies, even calling for migrants to be sent back to where they came from.

The French prime minister has said he is against quotas since France has already accommodated thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq since 2012.

Spain argues that its own chronic unemployment renders it impossible to provide assistance, while Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have also expressed opposition to the quota system.


Migration is a global phenomenon with no signs of a decline, but rather an increase in people willing to risk their lives for a slim chance of a better life.

It remains difficult to imagine that the latest EU plans will succeed in stemming the flow of thousands of desperate people, when even they cannot fully agree among themselves on how to deal with the problem in all its consequences, including the danger of worsening the plight of migrants.

by Garth Cilliers

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