BRUSSELS (AP) — Experts say the European Union's plan to disrupt the business of human traffickers and destroy their boats in the Mediterranean is a short-term deterrent that is likely to be dangerous, costly and tough to implement.
Faced with a rising death toll of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to get into Europe, the EU wants to launch a military operation next month to "destroy the business model" of the smugglers to coincide with the migrant high season. The operation will progressively include surveying smuggling routes, searching and boarding possible smuggling boats and eventually, possibly destroying those boats.
However, experts voiced concern Tuesday about the plan's real impact on smugglers — saying it could be just a media show to demonstrate EU determination to stop these perilous sea voyages.
The operation is still in the planning stage and requires a U.N. Security Council resolution and some consent from Libya, the major departure site for smugglers, for its full implementation to be legally sound. It will involve European navy ships, drones and satellite imagery.
"Having this aggressive military action is really sound and fury," said Tuesday Reitano from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. "It's going to cost a lot, it's going to look very impressive, with naval boats patrolling up and down, but it's certainly not going to have a long-term impact."
According to a planning document, the aim is "to disrupt the business model of the smugglers" by systematically destroying their main assets — boats.
Some of the simple boats though, many of them inflatable, might be easily replaced. Others have been designed to be abandoned, like the cargo ship programed to ram into Italy's shore.
But some may be tougher to replace, raising costs and convincing fishermen to no longer make their vessels available to smugglers.
Top EU officials have routinely touted the success of the European and NATO anti-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia as a good reason why a military effort might work in the Mediterranean.
But experts say fighting pirates is not the same as taking on the criminal networks in Libya. Those networks have access to powerful, high-tech weapons looted from the Libyan army compared to a ragtag force in Somalia using simple skiffs with large outboard engines.
"The major problem is that most of the boats being used off Libya are so much tougher to recognize as a trafficker boat than a skiff from pirates in Somalia," said an official from an EU nation involved in both the Somali and Libya operations. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the operation was still in the planning phase.
The operation will end up "targeting every single shipping vessel, every single commercial, every single kind craft that traverses off the coast of Libya," Reitano said.
Still, the 28-nation EU is under tremendous pressure to act. More than 170,000 people used Libya as a jumping off point last year to reach Europe, a dangerous but financially rewarding smuggling enterprise that accounts for about 80 percent of all the migrants smuggled into Europe.
More than 10,000 people have been plucked from the sea in recent weeks. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 1,820 migrants have died or gone missing on the sea route to Europe this year.
The complexity of the endeavor is not lost on EU ministers.
"To get a good start, we need to know where the boats are, and that you will do something which will not worsen the situation," Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said.
Nor is it easy to catch the smugglers. The experts said sophisticated human trafficking networks already move people by air through countries like Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Things are not so sophisticated in conflict-torn Libya.
"Libya's too chaotic. There are too many militia groups. It's a free for all. It's not really a coalesced criminal market that you could investigate," Reitano said.
And smugglers have long ago given up taking to the sea themselves.
"They're paying migrants or giving a reduction (to them) to crew their own boats. So you're not going to catch anybody," she said.