SHAFAQNA -Â The European Union launched a naval operation on Monday to try to stop human-traffickers from bringing migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe in unseaworthy boats, a lucrative and at times deadly practice.
More than 100,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year, with some 2,000 dead or missing during the perilous quest to reach the continent. Dozens of boats set off from lawless Libya each week, with Italy and Greece bearing the brunt of the surge.
The naval operation, which was officially launched by EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, will operate in international waters and airspace until the EU can secure a UN Security Council resolution endorsing its effort and permission from Libyan officials to enter their territory.
â€œWe will start implementing the first phase of the operation in the coming days. This covers information-gathering and patrolling on the high seas to support the detection and monitoring of smuggling networks,â€ said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
â€œThe targets are not the migrants. The targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths,â€ she told reporters.
The EU aims to â€œdismantle the business modelâ€ of the traffickers by destroying their boats, she said. But the UN has been slow to endorse the operation amid criticism from refugee groups that the move will only deprive migrants fleeing poverty and conflict of a major way to escape, rather than address the roots of the problem.
Libyaâ€™s divided factions have also been reluctant to approve any operation in its waters or on land, which means that the transition to more robust phases of the naval mission could take months.
A senior EU diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to provide operational details, said five naval units led by Italian light aircraft carrier Cavour will be joined by two submarines, three maritime surveillance planes, two drones and two helicopters for the operation.
EU boats and planes will only operate in international waters and skies, and will be involved in rescue work if needed.
The official was quick to point out that the EU operation is not a counterterrorism mission, and will stay away from politically sensitive actions such as boarding or destroying smuggling boats, which are expected in later phases of the operation.
The first phase aims to understand who the traffickers are, how they operate, and where the money goes, the official said.
The operation, as initially envisaged by EU officials, was intended to disrupt the migrant traffickersâ€™ business and to capture and destroy their ships, possibly even in Libyan waters. But the EU would require a UN Security Council resolution and consent from the Libyan authorities to operate in Libyan territorial waters and coastal areas.
Lacking both pre-conditions, the EU will limit its operations for now to sending ships and aircraft to patrol in international waters of the Mediterranean to gather information on the smugglersâ€™ activities.
Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain, which all belong to the 15-member Security Council, had been drafting a resolution to approve the EU operation under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force.
But diplomats said the work was put on hold earlier this month pending Libyan consent to the operation, a major obstacle because two rival governments and parliaments are fighting for control there.