EU wants to bomb smugglers’ boats to stop migrant crossings

Interview with François Crépeau
29 April, 2015

The United Nations and European Union are facing off on how to stop the unprecedented number of desperate migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life.

After an emergency meeting in Brussels, the EU is seeking United Nations support for its strategy to start bombing what they believe are empty migrant boats on or near the African coast, a move they hope will stop the smugglers in their tracks. About 170,000 refugees crossed into Europe last year by boat.

Nearly 1,600 migrants have drowned this year while crossing the Mediterranean in overloaded smugglers’ vessels, a 1,500-per-cent increase in deaths over last year.

Europe is scrambling to stop the human tidal wave before the summer when the sea is calmer and the numbers crossing are expected to far exceed what has ever been recorded.

Canadian François Crépeau, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, said he has no idea how the EU would carry out this military plan.

“They can’t bomb boats when there are people on board. Where exactly will they bomb? How they want to do it is a mystery. . . . Will it be effective against smugglers? Probably not,” Crépeau said from Montreal.

“My impression is the EU is trying everything they can to find an appropriate answer which would not include accepting thousands of migrants on its shore,” he added.

On Wednesday, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s representative on foreign affairs, met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington and then with Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. She is scheduled to be in Ottawa on Thursday.

Mogherini has admitted it won’t be easy to gain UN Security Council and Libyan approval for military strikes.

She started her week attending a meeting between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Italian President Matteo Renzi aboard an Italian naval ship off the coast of Sicily.

Ban disapproved of using military strikes against smugglers’ boats, saying it would be difficult to tell them from fishing vessels and that the move could destroy sectors of northern Africa’s fragile economies.

Blowing up boats is not an appropriate way to handle this humanitarian crisis, Ban told the media at a Vatican City news conference on Tuesday after he met Pope Francis to discuss the migrant tragedy and climate change.

“Of course there are some traffickers who use all these boats. They are engaged in criminal activities. We have to arrest them, we have to take a stand on this one,” Ban said.

While criminals must be arrested, a comprehensive plan is needed to handle the influx of refugees, like what was done decades ago with the Vietnamese, Crépeau suggested.

He said the EU must deal with two groups of migrants. The first are those fleeing conflict from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places in the Middle East. The others are economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa seeking better paying jobs in Europe.

In the last four years, nearly four million Syrians have become refugees, fleeing a war that has killed more than 220,000 and destroyed the country, leaving families paying smugglers to flee Turkey or Northern Africa for the southern European shore.

It is “ridiculous” to see Syrian families risking their lives, paying €30,000 to smugglers to cross on a rickety boat, he said.

And, aside from Europe, “it has been four years now and we’ve done nothing to help countries like Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon” handle the millions crossing their borders since the war began, Crépeau said.

He champions a plan to settle one million Syrians over five years in Europe, Australia and North America.

“For Canada it would be barely above 8,000 Syrians (a year),” he said. “A drop in the bucket.”

Ban has called the tragedy in the Mediterranean one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory as the world watches thousands drown. “These are the most vulnerable people who were risking their lives because either way they thought that they may be prosecuted or they may die,” he said.

“They risked their lives to find even the slimmest possibility of opportunity that they might get.”

The EU has struggled to share responsibility for the migrant crisis. Last year, the Mare Nostrum program was cancelled after financially struggling Italy said it could no longer support the expensive patrols of the Mediterranean searching for survivors. The program is credited with saving more than 150,000 people in 2014.

Mare Nostrum began after 300 people drowned around the small tourist island of Lampedusa in October 2013.

The EU has taken over the job with Operation Triton, which has one-third the budget of Mare Nostrum. Last week, EU leaders at the emergency meeting in Brussels tripled Triton’s funding to €9 million a month and they pledged to help with search and rescue missions.

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