The EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini held talks Wednesday with Libya's foreign minister, Mohamed al-Dayri, focusing on a European naval force that would fight human-smuggling gangs organizing Mediterranean migrant crossings but which have been so far opposed by Tripoli.
Libya's ambassador to the U.N. said Tuesday that his government is refusing to give consent for U.N. action aimed at endorsing the plan because European governments had discussed it with Libyan militias that control coastal territory.
"The meeting … took place in the context of the preparations of the maritime operation EUNAVFOR MED, which will focus on dismantling the business model of those involved in human smuggling," a statement said, using an acronym for the planned force.
Mogherini met with al-Dayri along with Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni and Britain's Philip Hammond in Brussels. The force's command center would be based in Italy, while the U.K. is drafting the U.N. resolution giving the force its legal framework.
The scheme, backed by foreign and defense ministers in Brussels, will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft gathering intelligence and then raiding boats to crack down on people smugglers.
Human smuggling has become a major security issue in Libya, severely affecting European countries, with Libya becoming the major port favored by smugglers for illegal immigration. The country has no control or security checks at the border. As the crisis leads to more people fleeing the country, militia groups loyal to either the Tobruk government or the Tripoli government have made huge sums of money by cooperating with people smugglers as they allow them to pass through their territory. The illegal transportation of migrants and refugees departing from the Libyan coast has led to more than 1,600 lives being lost over the last seven days, and the reported migrant fatalities in the Mediterranean Sea is feared to increase as more than 1 million people are said to be waiting to reach European shores from Libya.
The shores of Libya are only about 300 kilometers from Lampedusa, the southernmost island of Italy that is now sheltering thousands of illegal migrants. The North African country has 1,770 kilometers of coastline and 5,000 kilometers of porous land borders in mostly arid areas that are sparsely populated.
On May 18, EU nations approved plans for the unprecedented naval mission, but the U.N. resolution must pass before boats that belong to smuggling gangs in Libyan waters – where political turmoil has created a safe harbor for traffickers – can be destroyed. An international human rights organization commented on the EU's military action against human smuggling networks operating in Libya, and said the operation needs to be compatible with human rights law as to not risk migrant lives. The naval mission is expected to launch this month to fight the human traffickers behind the deluge of migrants and refugees attempting the dangerous crossing from crisis-hit Libya. The maritime operation aims primarily to protect European borders from the unprecedented influx of migrants attempting to reach the bloc's southern shores – who pay smugglers to place them on dangerous, overcrowded vessels – as well as to prevent the loss of lives at sea. The worst Mediterranean disaster in decades took place in April when a trawler packed with migrants capsized off the coast of Libya, killing around 800 people.
The increasingly violent and chaotic situation in the Middle East has led many people to flee the conflict in an attempt to seek security and shelter in more prosperous and peaceful countries in Europe. More than 218,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean in 2014, as indicated by the U.N., and more than 110,000 migrants crossed through Libyan territory in 2014 alone. These numbers have been gradually increasing as hundreds of immigrants hope to reach the European shores of Italy, Malta, Spain, Greece and Cyprus. More than 45,000 migrants have arrived by boat in southern Europe so far since the beginning of this year, according to figures released by the U.N. refugee agency.