Operation Sophia aims to reduce flow of migrants, with force.
By Branko Marcetic on March 3, 2016
With far-right sentiment on the rise across Europe, the once widespread sympathy for African and Middle Eastern migrants has evaporated, leaving them facing vitriol and violence from the citizens of the countries they hope to make their new homes. Now, a recent document release by WikiLeaks has put the spotlight on further bad news for refugees: the EU’s plans for military action against refugee boats coming from Libya, with the ultimate goal of entering Libyan waters and possibly even operating inside the country.
On February 17, WikiLeaks released a six-monthly EU report on Operation Sophia, the EU’s military effort launched in May last year to halt the flow of migrants coming to Europe through the Mediterranean and break up the people-smuggling industry thriving in North Africa and the Middle East. Dated Jan. 29, 2016, the report outlines the progress thus far and the next steps for the 22 member nations involved in the operation.
“From a military perspective, we are ready to move to phase 2B (Territorial Waters) where we can make a more significant impact on the smuggler and traffickers’ business model,” states the report.
Before this can happen, however, the operation needs a “legal finish” in the form of an invitation from the Libyan government, the report notes. The only problem is that the Libyan government doesn’t technically exist. After Muammar Gaddafi was deposed in 2011 and the initial euphoria of regime change dissipated, Libya devolved into a chaotic power struggle between two rival governments and a rash of local tribes and militias allied with, but not necessarily fighting for the interests of these same governments.
The report acknowledges this issue and presses the EU to “apply diplomatic pressure appropriately to deliver the correct outcome”—namely, a pliant Libyan government that would give the EU permission to operate in its territory. Following that, the EU would seek UN backing for its move into Libyan waters.
The report makes mention of an unspecified “phase 3” of the operation, which WikiLeaks speculates could be a reference to sending ground forces into Libya itself. While the report and earlier EU documents released by WikiLeaks regarding the operation are scant on details about the phase, one passage in the EU defense chiefs’ military plan released in May last year does provide a clue.
“The IMD [Initiating Military Directive] should also emphasize the need to calibrate military activity with great care, particularly within Libyan internal waters or ashore [emphasis mine], in order to avoid destabilizing the political process by…creating a perception of having chosen sides,” the document states.
This theory is also bolstered by a strategy paper for the EU’s anti-smuggling campaign that was obtained by the Guardian last year, which stated: “A presence ashore might be envisaged if agreement was reached with relevant authorities.”
“Moronic and delusional”
As part of Operation Sophia, named after a baby born to a rescued Somali refugee last year, the EU is empowered to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks by intercepting, seizing and eventually destroying smugglers’ boats. The EU hopes this will act as a deterrent to other smugglers.
Once the next phases of the operation are approved, EU forces will also likely begin targeting smugglers’ facilities on shore in Libya, as well as destroying smugglers’ boats before they’re sent on their journeys. As the leaked strategy paper makes clear, the phases could eventually involve a variety of operations.
“The operation would require a broad range of air, maritime and land capabilities,” the paper states. “These could include: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units.”
It also states that land operations could involve “action along the coast, in harbor or at anchor [against] smugglers’ assets and vessels before their use.”
In some ways, this is an improvement from European countries’ previous policy, which often involved what were known as “pushback operations”: forcing refugee boats to turn around and return the way they came. These were often life-threatening to the migrants on board. The Greek coast guard has been known to try to push the often overcrowded migrant boats back by creating waves, or even damaging the boats in order to force them to leave. In one instance, when a Greek coast guard vessel towed a packed migrant boat back to the Turkish coast in bad weather, the boat capsized, killing 12 people on board.
While less callous than these measures, the EU’s military campaign still carries a lot of risk. When large European ships and rickety smuggler-provided boats cross paths, even small errors can lead to unnecessary deaths, as when a Greek coast guard vessel struck a wooden refugee boat in October last year. Eight people drowned in that incident, including four children.
There’s also the fact that the operation is unlikely to act as an effective deterrent to smuggling. Smugglers have a habit of abandoning vessels when authorities approach, and their boats are cheap and easily replaceable. More importantly, it’s not smugglers who drive smuggling, but rather the push factors forcing refugees to make the trip to Europe in the first place—something the EU report doesn’t acknowledge.
“Migrants are recruited via social media, coaxers or by travel agent services run by smuggling networks outside Libya,” the report states.
Such language implies that refugees are hapless victims with little agency who are tricked into making deadly voyages. As indicated in the report, the EU believes stopping the flow of refugees is partly a matter of “dissuading the migrants,” and calls for “a comprehensive package of PSYOPS products targeted at local communities, based on coercive as well as on positive messages.”
In reality, the refugees making the journey across the Mediterranean have far more agency then they’re given credit for. The fact that they choose to undertake such a dangerous voyage is a sign of desperation, not gullibility. As long as the conditions driving refugees to escape still exist—such as chaos in Syria or violent anarchy in Libya—people will look for ways to get out. If the EU blocks the route out of Libya, they’ll likely turn to other, more dangerous routes.
These are just some of the many reasons one expert deemed the EU plan “moronic and delusional.”
Dragged back into Libya
The other risk the EU’s military campaign carries is that of further embroiling the West back in Libya. As the EU strategy paper made clear, European forces are likely to have frequent run-ins with terrorists if operating on Libyan soil and waters. An attack on EU forces could easily drag countries into the fight against Libyan terrorists.
Already, there are signs that the West is being pulled back into Libya as a result of the military intervention that just five years ago was declared a resounding success. Having become a safe haven for ISIL and other extremists in the anarchy following Gaddafi’s fall, the United States has been launching air strikes and sent limited troops into the North African state, while the UK has been preparing its own re-intervention into the country.
The internal documents released by WikiLeaks may reveal a possible divergence in vision between these two countries and the EU. In the United States and the UK, where ISIL is regularly hyped as a major existential threat, military intervention in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East is justified on the basis of stopping terrorism. But if these documents are any indication, this is far from the minds of the EU’s top military brass.
The issue of extremists coming into Europe from Libya is never brought up in the EU report, and gets only a single mention in the documents, in the form of one line in the EU defense chiefs’ 10-page military plan: “The potential presence of hostile forces, extremists or terrorists such as Da’esh should also be taken into consideration.”
It’s a reflection of the fact that in mainland Europe, the destabilizing effect of the arrival and subsequent accommodation of huge numbers of refugees is viewed as much more of an existential threat than terrorism, at least to those in power. The surge of migrants—over 929,000 arriving in Europe in 2015 according to the report—has put the EU’s open border policy under pressure and is straining its member states’ humanitarian impulses. Already, it has led to the eruption of ugly, racist violence and precipitated a rise in the popularity of far-right hate groups.
Regardless of their motivations, it seems both the United States and the EU see military force as the answer to their respective problems. As long as this is seen as the solution, the refugee crisis is sure to be with us for a long time yet.