Royal Navy’s HMS Bulwark to go after “criminal gangs”
By Nick Squires, Catania and Barney Henderson
9:37PM BST 22 Apr 2015
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday will consider launching a military operation against Libyan migrant traffickers, a draft statement seen by AFP showed on Wednesday night.
On the eve of the emergency EU summit on migration in Brussels, Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, said the country was “at war” with migrant traffickers, who are responsible for the deaths of as many as 1,000 migrants in the past week alone.
David Cameron and other EU leaders will consider a commitment to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers,” the draft statement showed.
A diplomatic source told a news agency that the EU’s 28 member states were widely mobilised to approve the statement’s wording, reflecting a growing willingness to launch an operation to fight the traffickers.
Roberta Pinotti, Italy’s defence minister, earlier said: “We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather. The plans for military intervention are there.”
Italy was prepared to lead a military intervention as long as it had the approval of the UN, she said.
“We think it’s the moment in which Europe decides, forcefully, to have an international police operation, which will undo this band of criminals,” she said.
Mr Cameron is reportedly considering deploying to the Mediterranean one of the Royal Navy’s biggest warships, HMS Bulwark, in an effort to “go after the criminal gangs”. The Ministry of Defence said that it was “looking at options”.
However, experts pointed out there could be major repercussions of any military intervention.
“They talk about capturing and destroying migrant boats, but presumably they will have people on-board, so they’re not going to just shoot them out of the water,” Matt Carr, the British author of Fortress Europe, a book on migration, told AFP.
“Others say the only way to stop them is to destroy all the boats in Libya, which is obviously nonsensical.” Alain Coldefy, a retired French admiral, said: “This problem is totally unsolvable with military means.”
Mr Renzi likened the human trafficking to the slave trade. “Fighting people trafficking means fighting the slave traders of the 21st century. It is not only a question of security and terrorism – it is about human dignity,” he told the Italian parliament in Rome.
The problem had to be tackled at its origins, with intense diplomatic efforts to solve conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, he added.
Mapped: Migrant deaths attempting to reach Europe by sea since 2000
Mr Renzi urged the EU and the United Nations to establish migrant reception camps in countries such as Tunisia, Sudan and Niger, where their applications for refugee status would be assessed.
Those granted asylum would then be resettled in countries throughout the EU, including Britain.
Mr Cameron said on Wednesday night he was ready to commit British resources to a strengthened search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean.
“Let’s also go after effectively the modern slave traders,” the Prime Minister said. “Let’s also try and stabilise these countries – not just Libya but also Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. It’s these unstable countries that people are coming from that’s part of the problem.”
It also emerged on Wednesday that the worst migrant boat sinking on record could have been even more deadly.
Survivors of Sunday’s disaster, in which a boat sank with more than 800 migrants locked inside the hold and lower deck, said that traffickers in Libya had initially tried to cram 1,200 people on board, but had to settle for the lower number when they realised the vessel was full to the limit.
“They wanted to put 1,200 people on the boat, they were shouting ‘hurry up’ and beating us to make us get on board. But in the end it was completely full and they stopped at 800 people,” a 16-year-old boy called Said from Somalia told Save the Children.
“It was so full we couldn’t even move. There was no food or water. The people that were put below were locked in.” He was one of just 28 survivors, including Africans and Bangladeshis, who lived to describe the horror of the unprecedented capsizing.
Italy has long argued that while migrants head for its shores because they are closest to North Africa, the issue of illegal immigration is a Europe-wide problem.
“Italy is like the front door in an apartment block – if the door is broken, then it will be a big problem for those on the floors above. Italy’s problem is also a problem for the rest of Europe,” Mauro Casinghini, a senior officer with the Order of Malta, a Catholic charity and humanitarian organisation, told The Telegraph.
“Until now, we have not seen adequate decisions being taken at the international and European level. There are plenty of leaders with good intentions and plans but nobody makes any decisions about how to stop the smuggling.”
In a fresh development it emerged that the EU is expected to ignore pleas to accommodate more migrants who succeed in crossing the Mediterranean, it was reported.
According to the Guardian only 5,000 places will be offered to those who survive the journey.
Nearly everyone who did reach Europe – 150,000 did succeed in making the crossing last year – will be sent back as soon as possible.
A new rapid return programme will be run by Frontex, the EU’s border agency.
In a draft statement the EU said it would more double the funding for the funding for the Triton and Poseidon units which are responsible for surveillance operations.
It will also begin working on a military operation to capture and destroy the ships which are being used to transport thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean.
This will disappoint humanitarian groups who had been calling for a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean.
However the EU has identified taking on the people smugglers as its main task.
“Our immediate priority is to prevent more people dying at sea. We have therefore decided to strengthen our presence at sea, to fight the traffickers, to prevent illegal migration flows and to reinforce internal solidarity,” the draft statement said.