FRANCE and Britain agreed Thursday to seek United Nations approval for an EU military operation against people smugglers, in a bid to curb the soaring number of migrants dying as they seek a better life in Europe.
“We will look at all the options for seeking out and destroying these boats… that can only be done under a UN resolution (on which) France will take the initiative with others,” France president Francois Hollande said after an emergency EU summit on the recent upsurge in migrants risking their lives to reach European shores.
To discuss the issue further, EU and African Union officials have decided to gather soon in Malta, which like Italy and Greece is one of the countries worst affected by migrant arrivals.
At the crisis talks in Brussels, EU leaders also decided to triple funds for the bloc’s maritime search and rescue operation, as horrific details continued to emerge of last weekend’s shipwreck that saw hundreds drown in the Mediterranean’s worst migrant disaster.
European Council President Donald Tusk said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had been tasked to “propose action in order to capture and destroy the smugglers’ vessels before they can be used.”
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi added that leaders from France and Britain—both permanent members of the UN Security Council—had “committed to get a resolution from the United Nations for an intervention in Libya.”
But leaders failed to agree on concrete action over the sensitive issue of what to do with migrants—many of whom depart from chaos-ridden Libya—once they land on European shores.
“I had hoped we could have been more ambitious but that was not possible,” EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said at a post-summit press briefing.
Ahead of the high-profile gathering, poignant events had taken place in Malta and Brussels to try and highlight the tragic human dimension of migrant shipwrecks.
Already, more than 1,750 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year—30 times more than the same period in 2014.
Malta honoured the more than 750 victims of last weekend’s shipwreck with an inter-faith funeral service—the wooden coffins of 24 of the dead carried away by soldiers for private burials.
Dozens of migrants in Brussels staged a protest near the EU summit venue, attaching pieces of paper with the names of people who had died onto barbed wire put up as a security measure.
“Esther Down, 9 months old, Nigeria, drowned,” read one of the signs.
Military response feasible?
As he arrived at the summit, Prime Minister David Cameron offered to deploy Britain’s flagship HMS Bulwark, three helicopters and two patrol ships to the Mediterranean, but stressed any migrant rescued would not have “immediate recourse to claim asylum in the UK.”
Other countries also offered up ships to enhance the effectiveness of the Triton search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean.
Hollande added that he would raise the issue with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin when he meets him on Friday.
But experts have questioned the feasibility of a military response to the crisis.
“It’s not an easy task to go shoot down boats in Libyan ports,” a European source who wished to remain anonymous said.
He pointed out that the radical Islamic State group was in control of parts of chaos-ridden Libya.
“They will be delighted to see European soldiers come to them, they are potentially easy targets.”
France, a former colonial power, continues to be involved in military operations in several of its former colonies, earning it the tag of ‘Africa’s gendarme’.. .