Mediterranean journeys in hope

Warfare on the logistics of migrant movements: EU and NATO military operations in the Mediterranean

Operations in the Mediterranean are billed as either humanitarian or necessary to prevent human trafficking, however the expansion of the military presence there means nothing less than warfare on migrants.

Glenda Garelli Martina Tazzioli
16 June 2016

NATO exercises in the Mediterranean in 2005. Petros Giannakouris/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The struggle of refugees and migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean is increasingly being managed as a crisis for Europe: a threat that Europe needs to contain far away from its territory and to tackle through frontline interventions of deterrence, containment, and blockade. The deployment of military operations like the EU’s ‘Operation Sophia’ in the central Mediterranean and the NATO intervention in the Aegean Sea is part of this approach. Presented, respectively, as a humanitarian intervention against migrant smugglers and a securitarian intervention to stop irregular migration, these naval operations are in fact an offensive against the ferrying of refugees and migrants to European shores.


Naval operations of migration management in the Mediterranean. Map from the House of Lords report, page 23. Fair use.

Toward the disruption of the Aegean route

The EU-Turkey agreement has been flaunted by European prime ministers as a measure for governing the ‘refugee crisis’ in the Mediterranean. Signed on 18 March 2016, it provides that all migrants who arrived on Greek islands via Turkey or who are intercepted in the Aegean Sea will be returned to Turkey, while a selected group of Syrian refugees will be resettled in Europe, corresponding in number to the Syrian refugees returned to Turkey from Greece. It is important to underline that potentially all asylum seekers en route to Greece will be returned to Turkey based on the safe third country principle (Article 38 of the Asylum Procedures Directive).

Two months into its implementation, the agreement has been working to block refugee flows into Greece and to transform the Aegean Sea into a migration ‘containment belt’, with Turkey patrolling the waters and receiving those blocked en route to Europe. Arrivals in Greece have in fact substantially decreased since the plan’s implementation. For instance, we were told by one UNHCR officer on Lesbos, where the biggest Greek hotspot opened in September 2015, that arrivals dropped to about 76 people per day in the second half of April 2016. This represents a dramatic decrease from the average 1,400 people registered each day in February 2016, just two months earlier, as a UNHCR officer deployed on the island reports. The border agency Frontex also talks of a 90% drop in April 2016 arrivals, compared to the previous month.

The Turkish coast guard intercepted 24,821 'irregular' migrants in the first four months of 2016, in contrast with 7,479 interceptions for all of 2015.

Such a dramatic decrease – despite the persistence (and even the worsening) of forced displacement conditions – lies in the securitarian move to protect Europe from refugees and migrants. The number of interceptions and push-back operations performed by the Turkish coast guard since 19 March 2016 has increased consistently. According to reports, 24,821 ‘irregular’ migrants were intercepted in the first four months of 2016, in contrast with a total of 7,479 for the entirety 2015. These operations can often be quite aggressive, and BBC reports have shown the Turkish coast guard using sticks and other coercive measures to induce boats to turn back to Turkey.

These efforts to close the Aegean route have also relied on the support of a NATO coalition fleet. Responding to requests for help from Turkey, Greece, and Germany, the NATO security alliance ordered military ships into the Aegean Sea on 11 February 2016. The involvement of NATO in this refugee and migrant corridor is part and parcel of the militarisation of migration management that has characterised the Mediterranean in these past few years.

NATO warships are tasked to conduct “reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings in the stretch of sea between Turkey and Greece.” Led by Germany, the fleet of seven warships operates in both international waters and in the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey. Their current focus is on the area between the islands Lesbos and Kios. While the NATO fleet does not directly engage in push-back activities, it provides real-time information to Greek and Turkish coast guards and to the EU Border Agency Frontex on the location of refugee and migrant boats; the fleet also conducts intelligence activities at sea, observing smugglers’ modus operandi.

The NATO fleet has jurisdiction not only in Greek and international waters but also in Turkish territorial waters – an area EU authorities cannot patrol but the NATO fleet can.

Furthermore, NATO’s military presence not only acts as a deterrent against those who organise transit for migrants. It also helps ensure that Turkish authorities comply with the terms of the EU-Turkey agreement while also providing surveillance, communication, and support to that end.

The territorial outreach of NATO is crucial to its involvement along the Aegean border zone. Since Turkey is part of the alliance, the NATO fleet has jurisdiction not only in Greek and international waters but also in Turkish territorial waters – an area EU authorities cannot patrol but the NATO fleet can. This is particularly important in terms of the outreach capacity of EU border functions, since Frontex units cannot be deployed in Turkish waters. In short, this military mission in the Aegean Sea extends the EU preemptive maritime frontier into Turkey, with the mandate to control ‘illegal crossings’.

But what does ‘illegal crossings’ mean when refugees are by definition crossing irregularly into the countries where they seek asylum? Resettlement programmes, in fact, serve less than 1% of the entire refugee population. The reality of forcefully displaced populations is that of accessing a country of refuge illegally in order to claim asylum. Likewise, those fleeing poverty and destitution are forced to irregularly cross the borders of their ‘receiving’ countries, where they will be hyper-exploited thanks precisely to their lack of status within these countries’ economies. So the mandate of “reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings” for the NATO fleet is a mandate to disrupt the Aegean route into Europe for refugees and migrants, in line with the EU-Turkey agreement.

On 15 April 2016, Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, presented his ‘Migration Compact’ to the European Union. This agenda takes the EU-Turkey agreement as a model to be replicated with Libya, further extending the EU preventative maritime frontier in the central Mediterranean. A few days later, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy as well as the vice-president of the European Commission, reinforced the vision of a replica agreement in Libya. She stated that the capacity of the Libyan coast guard will continue to be enhanced as part of her announcement that the EU Navfor-Med’s (EU Naval Force Mediterranean) ‘Operation Sophia’ will soon access Libyan territorial waters. In fact, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) has already started training the Libyan coast guard in Tripoli.

Blocking the ferrying of refugees and migrants across the south-central Mediterranean

Operation Sophia was established on 18 May 2015 and was just recently extended for another year. Its stated goal is to “disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Mediterranean” and to “contribute to reducing the further loss of lives at sea”. Covering 525,000 nautical miles in the south-central Mediterranean, costing an estimated €11.82 million per year, and deploying a variable composition of naval units and air assets, the mission is comprised of three phases: first, surveillance and assessment (phase 1, concluded in the first three months); second, search and diversion of migrant boats in international waters (phase 2A, launched on 9 October 2015 and on-going at the time of writing), and in Libyan waters (phase 2B, announced as forthcoming); third, terrestrial intervention in Libya to dispose of smugglers’ assets, including before their use, and to apprehend smugglers and traffickers (phase 3, timeline to be determined). The fast-tracking of the move into the Libyan territory (both its waters and its land) has recently been vocally supported by David Cameron, the British prime minister.

Created in the aftermath of yet another tragic shipwreck in which about 900 migrants lost their lives, Operation Sophia was presented as a military-humanitarian operation to ‘save’ migrants from smugglers and traffickers, who increase their profit margins by cramming people into cheap, unseaworthy vessels with inexperienced drivers. Operation Sophia, we are told in official documents and press releases, targets the “business model” of “smuggling and trafficking networks”.

The 'business model' of smuggling exists only as long as no safe and legal passages are provided for those fleeing war, violence, and poverty.

Let us start with “trafficking networks” as a target. This goal is often mentioned to underline the operation’s humanitarian component. Yet, even just looking at the six-month report published by Wikileaks, it is clear that the operation has been working on the ferrying of refugees and migrants, not on ‘human trafficking’. As Neils Frenzen notes, the report presents no evidence that Operation Sophia’s patrols have discovered evidence of human trafficking: its constant references to trafficking are always in conjunction with ‘human smuggling’ and, indeed, it only reports on human smuggling. It is in fact only acts of smuggling on which it reports.

As for the “business model” of smuggling, this is a deeply flawed military-humanitarian target. Indeed, it only exists as long as no safe and legal passages are provided for those fleeing war, violence, and poverty. To put it more directly, refugees and migrants are forced to resort to smugglers by the EU visa policies and asylum regulations. People fleeing conflict, war, and poverty cannot simply fly into one of the Schengen Area countries, taking much safer, faster, and cheaper means of transportation like airplanes. No EU humanitarian corridor has been established to allow for such safe passage.

What exists, instead, is a de facto blockage of legal passages for citizens of countries of forced displacement. While the Schengen visa requirement map is public record, it is seldom referred to in public discourse about the ‘migration crisis in the Mediterranean’. As long as they do not set foot into Europe to claim asylum or to seek other forms of international protection, people from all the countries marked in red are ‘irregular migrants’.


Schengen visa requirement map. Fair Use.

A politics that plans military action against the “business model of human smuggling” without providing safe and legal passages for people who flee from violence means warfare on the logistics of migrant journeys. It means a naval blockade of the only route away from the violence. So what has this military operation in the central Mediterranean consisted of so far? In the words of Enrico Credendino, the head of Operation Sophia, the operation has had a significant “effect of deterrence” that has discouraged escapees from taking the Libyan route into Europe. The militaries report “a 9% reduction in the migrant flow using the central [Mediterranean] route” since September 2015. Since this piece of data draws from Frontex statistics on detections at sea, it does not actually speak to the number of migrant departures from Libya, nor does it document a drop in migrant deaths at sea.

Moreover – and maybe most importantly – Operation Sophia has not so much disrupted the smuggling business model as changed its practices for the worse. The chance that boats may be seized and destroyed has prompted smugglers to increase their use of cheaper and hence disposable means of transportation. Inflatable dinghies are, of course, more vulnerable to bad weather and sea conditions than wooden or fiber-glass boats, and thus their use puts refugees’ and migrants’ passage at much greater risk. Speaking of business, it has been reported that actors in Libya are ordering dinghies in bulk from Chinese manufacturers and having them shipped via Malta.

Moreover, an increase in departures from Egypt has been registered during Operation Sophia, increasing the duration of the crossing to Italy from one day (as it is from Libya) to three days in good conditions. The EU military engagement does not disrupt the economy of smugglers; it disrupts refugees and migrants’ journeys. The business model of smuggling has been restructured during the time of Sophia’s intervention to utilise increasingly convoluted and risky sea-paths.

Rescue operations by the military

As of 20 April 2016, Operation Sophia had ‘rescued’ 13,000 people whose boats were in distress, apprehended 28 smugglers, and neutralised or destroyed 105 vessels, as officers from the EU Navfor-Med headquarters in Rome told us. While it is continues to be stated that human smuggling remains the main target of the operation, rescue operations are unquestionably at the centre of discussions about the EU Navfor-Med mission.

On the one hand, critics who focus on the containment of migration contend that, far from disrupting the smuggling industry, the operation has indirectly facilitated the transport of migrants into Europe via rescue operations. On the other hand, EU declarations stress the importance of the humanitarian component of their military engagement, underlining that the EU Navfor-Med operation is also tasked with “protecting life at sea” and “reducing the further loss of lives in the Mediterranean”.

Both positions isolate Operation Sophia from the regulatory context of the sea in which it operates. The rescue of boats in distress is, in fact, a legal obligation for seafarers. Military boats, as well as any other type of boat out in the water, are obliged to be ready to meet their commitment to rescue ships in distress under the International Convention on Safety of Law at Sea (SOLAS) and the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). Enlisting a fleet against informal passages in dangerous waters necessarily means also having to deal with rescue operations, if such a mission were to operate legally.

A politics that issues military operations against ‘irregular’ crossings and the smuggling industry without providing safe passages for those fleeing war, violence, and poverty is a politics of migration containment. Enlisting warfare against the only passages that EU migration and asylum policies permit forcefully displaced people to use only results in these passages becoming increasingly dangerous.

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