The United Nations Security Council plans to put forth a draft resolution that would authorize Europe to use military force to stop migrant smuggling boats that set off from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea, signaling the Continent’s resolve to stanch the tide of migrants fleeing the Middle East and North Africa.
The measure, which is likely to be discussed with the European Unionforeign minister, Federica Mogherini, on Monday, when she isscheduled to meet with the Security Council, raises a host of tricky legal and diplomatic issues, including whether to offer safe passage to the people on those boats or return them to Libya or their countries.
International law prohibits countries from returning migrants who are fleeing persecution in their own countries.
Hundreds of migrants have died at sea while trying to reach Europe, many on frail dinghies. The International Organization for Migration has recorded a death toll of more than 1,800 so far this year.
United Nations diplomats said this week that the draft resolution would authorize European troops to conduct military operations not only in international waters, but also on Libyan soil and in Libya’s territorial waters under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes the use of force.
“This is designed to be an upstream measure to prevent this from happening,” one Council diplomat said Wednesday. It could be adopted by mid-May.
One issue for the Council is whether Libya would have to consent to a military operation on its soil.
This is especially thorny because there are two rival Libyan governments, and they are engaged in delicate political negotiations mediated by the United Nations.
The United Nations mission of the internationally recognized Libyan government did not respond to a request for comment.
The draft measure was proposed by European members of the Council, as well as by Italy, which bears the principal burden of rescuing migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
The proposed military intervention against the smugglers’ boats is part of a European Union plan, unveiled in April, that also includes tripling its border protection operation and offering places to 5,000 migrants who qualify for “protection.”
Human rights groups have called the European Union’s plan inadequate. And even the chiefs of three United Nations agencies said efforts to deter smuggling would be futile “unless measures are adopted to address overly restrictive migration policies in Europe, as well as the push factors of conflict, human rights violations and economic deprivation.”
Indeed, some legal experts contend that Europe is obliged by its own human rights laws to offer the migrants a chance to seek political asylum. This presents European governments with a dilemma.
“If migrants are safely brought to Europe and distributed among member states where their asylum claims are dealt with, then seizing boats would amount to organizing (almost) safe corridors between Libya and Europe,” Philippe Fargues, of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, wrote in an email. “On the other side, if boats are systematically sent to the bottom, one may expect that scarcity of boats will result in more rusty crafts being used and a rising price of the seat.”
James Hathaway, a University of Michigan law professor, said the focus on smuggling rings was something of a red herring. Migrants fleeing war or persecution often have no option but to use smugglers, he said.
And the real issue, he said, is how to offer the migrants a chance to seek asylum in Europe rather than to return them to countries where they would face persecution.
“States know that smuggling is the only way desperate people can reach safety,” he said. “If the Security Council does not, in taking action, absolutely ensure the unequivocal respect for the duty not to return refugees, the Security Council would be blessing a breach of international law.”
The Council resolution proposes to remove people on the boats in line with international law, Council diplomats said, but it remains unclear exactly what provisions would be made for them.
Another point of contention among Council diplomats is whether the smugglers’ boats can be destroyed. Russia has said it cannot support such an initiative.
On Wednesday, Francesco Rocca, president of the Italian Red Cross, after meeting with the secretary general, called for what he described as a “comprehensive approach” to deal with the crisis in Libya and offer migrants legal avenues to seek asylum in Europe.
“If we bomb and let them die in Libya, that’s not a solution,” he told reporters. The migrant traffickers, he added, would simply find another way if the Libya route were to be closed.
The exodus reflects a worldwide surge of displacement. According to a report released Wednesday by the Norwegian Refugee Council, a record 30,000 people fled their homes every day in 2014, raising the total number of internally displaced people around the world to 38 million. That number does not include refugees, who have fled their countries.
Seeking Asylum in Europe
Many refugees sought asylum in countries like Germany and Sweden, which have been relatively open to immigrants. As the refugee surge continues, debate is growing in the European Union about the lack of unified immigration policies and funding for migrant rescue operations.
The United Nations called the current crisis in the Mediterranean “a tragedy of epic proportions,” in a statement released Thursday. It also called for a more comprehensive response by the European Union.
Deaths at Sea
As of April 20, there have been about 18 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year, according to initial estimates from the International Organization for Migration.
The increase in crossings has mainly occurred on Mediterranean Sea routes to Italy, though crossings to Greece have also risen. The number of crossings is expected to remain high this year. In the first 17 days of April, 11,000 people have been rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.
Operators of vessels used to transport migrants charge Africans the equivalent of $400 to $700 per person per trip. Syrian migrants are charged the equivalent of $1,500 per person to cross the sea, said Flavio DiGiacomo, head of communications at the International Organization for Migration. Vessels are frequently overcrowded and often unseaworthy, he said. For refugees, once the fare is paid, there is no turning back, said Mr. DiGiacomo.
Humanitarian organizations, which are expecting a rapid increase in the flow of refugees as the weather improves, are concerned that a cut this year in financing for Mediterranean Sea patrol programs would hamper rescue efforts.
A Transit Hub for Refugees
Many of the refugees begin their journey in the backs of trucks, which smugglers use to transport them through the desert and into Libya.
Refugees are then left to await transport in small houses where they are vulnerable to abuse, according to Mr. DiGiacomo of I.O.M. In some cases, refugees are held in detention centers until they are able to pay to leave.