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Militarized Seas? European Diplomats Propose Using Armed Forces to Curb Refugee Flow

The idea for a military role was sparked by the October 3rd deaths of 360 immigrants trying to reach Italy.

EU NAVFOR ships.
Photo Credit: EU NAVFOR/Flickr


A Nov. 19 paper by the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU diplomatic corps, considers the possibility of the European military getting involved in the south Mediterranean in an effort to curb the influx of irregular migrants and refugees into Europe.

The idea for a  military operation initially appeared in an Italian proposal set forth on Oct. 24, suggesting extraordinary measures after the recent tragic events at Lampedusa in Sicily, where a boat that departed from Libya on Oct. 3 sank before reaching the island, killing 360 immigrants.

The incident sent shock waves throughout Europe and triggered a civil society dialog about European migration policy’s human cost. But many of Europe’s leaders have seen the tragedy as a reason for further militarisation of the region.

EEAS deputy spokesman Sebastien Brabant told IPS in an email interview that following the Oct. 3 incident in Lampedusa “the ‘Taskforce Mediterranean’ was created to set out proposals for immediate EU action” from which the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) proposal has emerged.

The proposal includes options for the interception of population movements towards Europe including an independent maritime operation or the implementation of extra measures within an ongoing Frontex – the EU border agency – operation in the region.

All options predict a central role for the CSDP, the key European instrument for dealing with international security crises.

The CSDP proposal as a platform for dealing with population movements that could occur as a result of destabilisation in the Mediterranean countries coincides with a pending consideration of the instrument’s future on the agenda of the European Council planned for later this month.

The EEAS will present its proposal when the heads of state discuss how to enhance defence capabilities, strengthen the defence industry and improve the effectiveness, visibility and impact of the CSDP.

The idea has provoked a backlash, with German MP Andrej Hunko, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, saying that “Further militarisation of border surveillance will make crossings even riskier and lead to even more deaths. The EEAS even confirms this. The inhumane and frequently criticised approach taken by the EU border police, FRONTEX, is being reinforced.”

Meanwhile Frontex has already arranged to update its Joint Operations “Hermes”, launched to control illegal migration flows from Tunisia towards southern Italy, mainly Lampedusa and Sardinia, and “AENAAS”, combating illegal migration from the Ionian Sea towards Italy (mainly Apulia and Calabria) from Turkey and Egypt.

Italy has also put in place a national patrol operation named “MARE NOSTRUM” coordinated by the Italian military. An  internal European paper issued on Apr 18 demonstrated the serious concern among European leadership about the possibility of Libya collapsing into sectarian war.

The paper was a blueprint for a civilian integrated European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), aiming to help establish and train a new territorial and maritime border guard in Libya. EUBAM, which is ongoing now, is also a CSDP mission.

EUobserver reported on Nov. 18 that elements in the internal EU paper indicated that the “civilian” EUBAM to Libya was in fact designed to also train “paramilitary forces, amid a wider European and U.S. effort to stop Libya becoming a ‘failed state’.

Militarisation of the central Mediterranean would complement earlier restrictions put in place in the southeastern part of the sea. In the spring of 2012, Greece adopted tough control policies, including deploying security forces to its borders, building a fence along its land border with Turkey, and detaining irregular migrants for up to 18 months.

As a result incoming flows shifted to  new routes through the Western Balkans or revived older one in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

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