BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution within days to let its members hunt down human traffickers in the Mediterranean and destroy their boats, a senior EU official said Tuesday.
EU foreign ministers hope to have a U.N. resolution by their May 18 meeting "to ensure that we can have coercive action toward the smugglers" who have helped bring more than 10,000 migrants to European shores in unseaworthy boats in recent weeks, said the official, who has close knowledge of the operation but is not permitted to speak publicly about it.
More than 170,000 illegal border crossings were recorded through the Mediterranean last year, mostly Syrians and Eritreans leaving via Libya, whose collapse has allowed criminal gangs and terrorists to flourish. Around 1,700 migrants are feared to have died in recent weeks even before the high season for sea migration begins in June.
The controversial operation is part of a broader EU migration agenda to be unveiled Wednesday by the EU's executive Commission. The agenda includes steps to speed up the identification and processing of migrants when they arrive, and to ensure that countries rapidly send back people who do not qualify for protection, according to a draft of the text obtained by The Associated Press.
The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said the operation's aim is to "disrupt the business model" of the traffickers. European navies currently can only destroy boats involved in trafficking if they have no national flag or if the nation whose flag they bear gives permission for their destruction. A U.N. resolution would broaden that restriction to allow for more boats being destroyed.
Some 10 European countries have signaled an interest in taking part in the operation, the official said. Britain, France, Poland and Spain are likely to provide ships or planes.
The illicit migrant trade across the Mediterranean is now worth up to $323 million a year in Libya alone and its resources are being funneled into terrorist groups including the Islamic State group, according to a report Tuesday by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a network of law enforcement and development groups, and the Rhipto analysis center in Norway.
Despite this booming trade, the EU's plan has proved controversial, with both Russia and Libya expressing concerns about the plan.
With a U.N. resolution in hand, the EU ministers could give formal approval for the operation to go ahead and it would probably be announced by EU leaders at a Brussels summit in late June. No European troops would set foot on Libyan soil, the official said.
The Commission, meanwhile, said in the new agenda that it "intends to strengthen the monitoring of the compliance" of migrant return policies in member states, given that just a little over one third of the return decisions made in 2013 were enforced.
It plans to amend the "legal basis" of EU border agency Frontex, setting up a single department to make sure countries work more effectively and closer together to send people back to their home countries.
In the past, EU joint return flights were roundly criticized by rights groups, and the EU Ombudsman has expressed concerns about the conditions under which people are deported and received when they land.
In what is dubbed a "hotspot" concept, EU agencies will deploy to member states in times of massive influx to better process, fingerprint and return those who do not qualify for protection, the text said.
Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.