Faced with unprecedented numbers of illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East attempting to reach Europe’s southern borders, European leaders are considering military action to destroy the boats used by people smugglers before they set sail from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Since the start of 2015, more than 21,000 people are believed to have landed in Italy on boats from Egypt and Libya alone. More than 1,500 are believed to have drowned at sea.
An emergency meeting of the European Council yesterday also decided to rapidly reinforce two joint EU operations that have proved hopelessly inadequate in stemming the rising tide of illegal migration, and conducting search and rescue (SAR) operations. Operations Poseidon and Triton provide patrols within 30 miles of the Greek and Italian coasts respectively, but they currently employ just five fixed-wing aircraft, one helicopter and 17 vessels between them. They are conducted by Frontex, the EU agency that is supposed to “promote coordinate and develop European border management.”
Last October, Operation Triton controversially replaced a much larger Italian-run patrol and rescue operation named Mare Nostrum that extended across the Mediterranean. Some EU countries – notably the UK – claimed that Mare Nostrum acted as an incentive to migrants to attempt the crossing. The Italian government is now pushing for kinetic as well as enhanced SAR action. It wants to arm its fleet of MQ-1/9 Predator/Reaper UAVs to strike the migrant boats along the coast of Libya before they are used by people traffickers. This task might also be accomplished by special forces deployed by boats or helicopters. Libya currently has no functioning government following the defeat of the Ghaddaffi regime in Operation Unified Protector in 2011.
Last year, Frontex described its ambition to adopt remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) to help keep watch over the EU’s external borders. More recently, Edgar Breugels, the head of Frontex’s R&D unit, noted that RPAS “have great potential, particularly in the Mediterranean area. The main issue is operating cost. For now, it is too much for most civilian authorities to bear.”