EU plan to stop Mediterranean migrant crossings is likely to achieve just the opposite

The proposal leaves the economics of the trade untouched, and smugglers often recoup their investment in a single journey

THE European Union is planning far-reaching measures to stem the wave of migrants taking to the Mediterranean Sea in rickety dangerous boats with dreams of a better life in Europe, but the proposed measures are likely to work perfectly as a perverse incentive in achieving exactly what they are trying to avert.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini this week pleaded for international help to implement a plan intended to disrupt the business of people smugglers who ferry migrants from North Africa – mainly Libya – to southern Europe, while at the same time save human lives.

To block the departures from Libyan ports, Mogherini proposed pre-emptive airstrikes to destroy the smuggling boats before they leave the shore.

The plan also intends to double the EU’s spending on search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea, and in a briefing to the Security Council on Monday, Mogherini assured the members that “no refugees or migrants intercepted at sea will be sent back against their will.”

To lessen the burden on Italy that has accommodated most of the rescued migrants so far, the minister proposed an introduction of a broader quota system for EU countries, that would compel them to accept a certain number of refugees or asylum seekers into their borders.

Today, tight quotas mean many of those risking their lives to travel to Europe are unable to obtain a visa or asylum status.

The EU-wide resettlement plan to will take into account national economic growth, unemployment and past numbers of asylum seekers, according to a draft.

The three-pronged strategy is thus designed to both reduce the number of crossing attempts, as well as save the lives of those who do take to the perilous sea.

Running into resistance

But the plan is already attracting resistance. The proposal to seize and destroy the boats is opposed by Russia, which holds veto power in the UN Security Council. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that the destruction would be “going too far” as that will infringe on the rights of boat owners who might unknowingly rent out their vessels to smugglers.

And the quota-system idea is drawing resistance from the UK.

“We do not believe that a mandatory system of resettlement is the answer,” the UK Home Office said in a statement. “We will oppose any EU Commission proposals to introduce a non-voluntary quota.”

But finding the boats to destroy is going to be a tricky affair. In the first place, smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbour of clearly marked vessels, ready to be targeted by EU air strikes. They buy them off fishermen at a few days’ notice, says this article by Patrick Kingsley of The Guardian, and to destroy their potential pool of boats, the EU would need to raze whole fishing ports.

The smugglers are also likely to shift to using plastic inflatable boats that can be hidden away, in order to avoid attracting the attention of the EU boat-destroying patrols.

The smaller, lighter boats are likely to be more dangerous in the high seas, and less likely to carry adequate food, water or emergency supplies as smugglers try to cram every available nook and cranny with migrants.

Economics of trafficking

And with a guarantee of a European country being obligated to take them in – which saves them months or even years of operating in limbo – even more people are likely to attempt the crossing to Europe.

The proposal leaves the economics of the trade untouched. The deadly business model involves a relatively small investment in an ancient, sometimes long-abandoned vessel. There are plenty of those in Libyan ports following the fall of Muammar Gadaffi and the collapse of central authority.

With each passenger paying as much as $1,000 for the treacherous journey, the smugglers often recoup their investment in one journey – the cost of a large ship is about $115,000, while one load of migrants in that size of vessel brings $450,000 in revenue in a single trip, Kingsley’s research shows. The margins are higher when the ship is hired as opposed to bought outright, as many smugglers do.

The economics means that smugglers can afford to abandon the ships at every journey – which is exactly what they do. And with the proposed air strikes, few are likely to risk being traced back to shore.

The smuggling has even adopted a marketing sheen – various armed groups in Libya are aggressively advertising their services to would-be migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and Syrians fleeing conflict in their country, presenting the collapse of order in Libya as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure safe passage to Europe, says this story by the Wall Street Journal.

If the plan is implemented, it will probably be a textbook case in “How not to stop illegal migrations in the Mediterranean.”

-Additional reporting by Bloomberg

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