Military madness in the Med

  • Jeff Crisp
05 June, 2015

According to the United Nations, some 60,000 people, many of them from war-torn and poorly governed countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Syria, have travelled across the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of 2015 in an attempt to reach safety in Europe. Around 1,800 of them have drowned while making the voyage, while those who have survived remain exhausted and traumatized by the arduous journeys they have taken from their countries of origin.

Panicked by these events, the European Union (EU) has introduced what it describes as a ‘new migration agenda’. But the plan set out in that document contains elements that are unethical, impracticable and of questionable legality.

The most controversial component of the EU’s new approach concerns the use of military assets to identify and destroy the boats that are used to transport refugees before they set sail from the North African coast. It remains unclear as to how this will be done.

While some officials have insisted that there will be no ‘boots on the ground’, leaked EU documents show very clearly that an ‘onshore presence’ might well be required if this part of the new migration agenda is to be implemented. A number of commentators have also suggested that if the boats are to be destroyed, then the EU will be obliged to deploy drones and special forces.

There are several reasons why this approach is highly reckless and one which challenges the ideals on which the EU is supposedly based.

First and most obviously, there is a serious likelihood that in its efforts to identify and destroy the boats, the EU will place refugees in the line of fire. Indeed, the EU itself has already acknowledged that the military campaign might lead to ‘collateral damage’. Such an outcome would seriously undermine the EU’s claims that the primary purpose of its new migration agenda is to save lives.

Second, at a time when the EU is preoccupied with Islamic extremism and the rise of the so-called Islamic State, it seems extraordinary that it should launch an operation which threatens to destroy local lives and livelihoods, and which supports the narrative that Western states are only too ready to intervene militarily in Muslim countries.

Once again, leaked EU documents demonstrate that military strikes are likely to proceed despite the EU’s full awareness of this problem. In the words of one paper, “any casualties as a result of EU action could trigger a negative response from the local population and the wider region.”

A third objection to the military component of the EU’s migration agenda concerns its effectiveness as a means of stopping the boats. Refugees will not be deterred from leaving their homeland and seeking safety elsewhere if that is the only way that they can survive. And the human smugglers who control the boats will continue to function and revise their operations as long as there is a lucrative market for their services.

Finally, the decision to take military action has been accompanied by a great deal of disingenuous language. Confronted with growing concern from commentators about the notion of ‘bombing the boats’, EU officials are using the more anodyne language of ‘disrupting smugglers’ networks’.

No effort has been made to explain how this component of the migration agenda can be squared with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which upholds the right to “seek and to enjoy asylum” in other countries.

And the EU continues to request legitimization for military action from the Security Council, dishonestly using a chapter of the UN Charter which is strictly reserved for situations in which there is a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” It is difficult to see how a movement of desperate asylum seekers falls into that category.

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