Small Wars Journal

Helping Europe with its Sea

Thu, 10/16/2014 - 2:48am

Helping Europe with its Sea

Mark Lawrence

Southern Europe’s mass migration problem is out of control.  The U.S. government may be forced to address this fact sooner rather than later if it wants to keep its transatlantic allies focused on Russia and active alongside us in the Middle East.  That doesn’t mean the United States needs to send more assets to the Mediterranean to do what Europe would agree it should be able to do for itself.  Our chief strategic interests in this part of the world are arresting the decline in European defense spending to ensure our allies are capable of policing their own region, and of working with us on our toughest common security challenges.  But it does mean the United States must support a key partner’s call for assistance in handling the utterly tragic consequences of instability in the broader Middle East and North Africa now manifesting themselves at sea.

In the space of one week this September, around 750 African and Middle Eastern migrants drowned off of Europe’s shores in five separate incidents.  In most cases the circumstances were familiar if no less inexplicable – unseaworthy vessels filled beyond capacity proved unable to traverse the Mediterranean safely, duly foundered, and sank.  In the most egregious case to date, the human traffickers responsible for overfilling a dilapidated boat (having received their payments up-front) purposefully scuttled it with the migrants still embarked.  As a result, some 500 souls – Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, and Sudanese men, women and children – perished off the coast of Malta.  The migrant death toll at sea this year so far stands around 3,000, exceeding the spike of losses Mediterranean nations witnessed in 2011, when optimism over the Arab Spring gave way to the harsh realities of the Libyan and Syrian civil wars. 

A Maritime Security Issue First and Foremost

Illegal migration by sea is nothing new to Southern Europe.  But after a particularly high profile incident in October 2013 – where 364 migrants perished in territorial waters off the island of Lampedusa – the government of Italy implemented a full-scale naval patrol in territorial and international waters termed Operation ‘Mare Nostrum.’  The European Union (EU) border control agency (‘Frontex’) credited this operation for saving tens of thousands of lives in its first year.  Even so, the mission is proving as inadequate as it is unsustainable.  Twice as many migrants traveled the “central Mediterranean route” in 2014 so far, and the number of deaths at sea reached a new high with a quarter of the year still remaining.  Without assistance from neighboring countries, NATO, or the EU, Italian domestic support for the operation waned months ago as costs soared to $12 million per month and awareness grew of the humanitarian dilemma facing coastal communities.

Italy's appeals for help gained traction once it assumed the rotating presidency of the EU Council this past July, and now the EU intends for Frontex to take the lead on patrolling common migration routes by the end of November 2014.  Yet the EU’s lack of appetite for the costs of increased surveillance, let alone the teeth to demand increased national contributions, means it will only be able to support a more modest operation.  The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs (the executive tasked to improve Europe's border controls and address human trafficking) has reduced expectations by stating that “search and rescue” will remain a national priority outside the bounds of the new Frontex mission, prompting the UN High Commission on Refugees to observe that many more people will perish unless Mare Nostrum’s successor increases European patrols and surveillance.  However modest the eventual EU-led effort ends up being, Italy and Malta’s continued wrangling over key elements of the EU’s operating concept – such as whether the intercepting nation or the nearest port must take possession of any migrants rescued – means the planned November start date seems increasingly out of reach. 

There is certainly much more to tackling the growing illegal migration problem than maritime domain awareness and intercept operations.  Putting aside the violent conflicts responsible for why so many choose to risk their lives in this fashion, there are other fundamental questions to address.  Which migrants should the EU treat as refugees?  Where should they be processed, sheltered or repatriated?  Where are the traffickers operating, and what capacity-building arrangements can the EU reach with nations of origin to pressurize those ungoverned spaces?  The EU has been mulling over questions like these for years, but if it intends to devise a more comprehensive approach to Mediterranean migration, capable southern European nations must put to sea to save lives and create the needed time and space.  Another recent case, where 300 Syrian migrants refused to disembark a cruise ship after it rescued and delivered them safely to Cyprus, illuminates how the lack of sufficient government capacity in the region heaps more complexity on top of an already difficult issue.

Nothing in what the EU plans to do on the “central route” between Libya and Sicily breeds confidence that European capitals are about to dedicate serious resources to police their maritime approaches.  Given the existence of similarly well-established “western” and “eastern” routes (Spain's travails with fence jumpers in Ceuta and Melilla are widely known, and by the EU’s own accounting more than half of all illegal immigration into Europe last year moved through the Eastern Mediterranean) the governments of Spain, France, and Greece should share Italy’s interest in meeting the challenge at sea.  Lastly, growing concerns over the possibility of foreign fighters returning from Middle East conflict zones via routes like these should get the rest of Europe’s attention. 

That prospect in particular will eventually seize the imagination of the United States as our coalition air campaign in Iraq and Syria subsides to a dull roar.  Our naval forces have already experienced the scale of illegal migration in the Mediterranean first-hand, and must expect to be drawn closer to the problem by our very proximity.  This summer, two U.S. ships (one recently arrived from the Red Sea as a precaution for the forthcoming evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli) responded to Italian navy requests for assistance in rescuing 282 people near Malta.  It would therefore behoove U.S. officials to consider whether the EU is on track to re-establish basic maritime security in Europe’s near seas.  If Frontex remains focused on de-conflicting the national border enforcement efforts of the EU’s southern nations, an endeavor it started in 2007 with the European Patrols Network, the United States might suggest a command and control arrangement with a higher standard such as unity of effort.  If the EU remains adamant that its successor to Mare Nostrum will not operate in international waters – even as it recognizes the irreplaceability of Italy’s active patrolling – perhaps our government should encourage Europe to lean farther forward.  Clearly, schemes to interdict migrants and stop the criminals smuggling them must work in tandem to be successful, but the EU engenders no policy discussion on the impunity with which traffickers currently operate, and so U.S. policymakers must conclude the EU does not see the challenge it faces through the security lens now required. 

The Tools at Hand Have Yet to be Used

Rather than add human trafficking in the Mediterranean to the list of indirect security threats the United States pursues, however, it should call for NATO's direct involvement in re-establishing a robust cooperative maritime presence in Europe's international waters.  Doing so would save innocent lives and increase the operating costs for the organized crime networks involved.  It would preclude an outgrowth of several distinct and growing humanitarian crises in the broader Middle East from dictating European foreign policy priorities – whether in response to a critical mass of asylum requests or a focused terrorist threat.  And it would also serve longer-term U.S. interests in seeing our closest allies reclaim some of their erstwhile status as net security providers in the international system. 

NATO's involvement need not entail a new named operation, or a new force generation effort requiring 28 allies to agree on and then source additional military requirements.  Nor would NATO be forced to work within the bounds of its existing Mediterranean-based maritime mission, Operation ‘Active Endeavor.’  Quite the contrary, the U.S. government could take the opportunity presented by Europe's current human smuggling challenge to scrap the current mission, which has persisted for 13 years despite long periods of dormancy due to a flawed operational design, constant under-resourcing, and attempts by some allies to limit its scope well below the threshold of maritime security operations.  All that would be required is follow-through on the transatlantic political commitment made this September at the Wales Summit to finish reforming NATO's standing naval forces.  That commitment exemplifies a renewed consensus that standing naval forces are most valuable when they are empowered to execute the full range of maritime security tasks each ally previously agreed their forces should be prepared to do – among them building maritime situational awareness and conducting maritime interdictions when necessary to mitigate gaps in national law enforcement capacity at sea. 

Once Europe's current task at sea is viewed through a maritime security lens, the potential involvement of NATO naval forces checks all the boxes for a more capable and urgent common operational approach than is currently in development.  Whether Active Endeavor is terminated or modified to remove the artificial limits on activities taken under its auspices, NATO-assigned forces immediately represent a broader base than EU contributions alone.  Allies contribute forces annually to standing maritime groups – the maritime portion of NATO’s immediate response force, which by design is available for training and tasking as required.  NATO recently modified its counter-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa so even more assets will be available for different tasking six months out of each year – including during summer, when high sea states in the Arabian Sea keep Somali pirates ashore and comparatively settled Mediterranean waters embolden human trafficking organizations.  NATO maritime forces routinely integrate shore-based air patrol capabilities in maritime domain awareness architectures, and are well-drilled under common rules of engagement and unified command and control.  Finally, the Wales agreement means Allied standing naval forces will be more present and proficient in Mediterranean waters than ever before. 

Absent a coherent effort to secure Europe's maritime approaches, illegal migration in the Mediterranean will continue to place great strain on Italy, the rest of southern Europe, and potentially the viability of the EU as a political entity.  But an agreement to respond with NATO-led maritime security patrols would pressurize this increasingly ungoverned space on short order, serving European, alliance, and U.S. interests alike.  Europe could buy itself time to build consensus on immigration policy, and avoid the knock its aspirations for a common security and defense policy would take if the new EU Maritime Security Strategy was seen to have failed its first test.  NATO would take a big step towards achieving closer coordination with the EU on major policy goals.  And the potential benefits to the United States are just as clear: by supporting Italy – a key ally that figures prominently in U.S. force posture in Europe – and by leveraging the utility U.S. armed forces built together with European allies inside NATO, our policymakers can keep an inadequate Mediterranean presence from allowing common security threats to proliferate on Europe’s doorstep.

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Commander Mark Lawrence is the Navy’s Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the positions of the Navy or the Department of Defense.


Move Forward

Fri, 04/17/2015 - 8:43am

In reply to by Bill M.

How about converting the island of Lampedusa (between Sicily and Libya) from its intermediate staging base status for refugees into a larger refugee camp for Libyans and Syrians. That island currently has about 4500 Italian inhabitants that could be segregated by fencing from refugees. They probably also could use the jobs and increased supply/transport lines for water, food, and travel to the mainland.

If President Obama wanted to modify Guantanamo Bay into a refugee camp, that could be an option, as well. Both would take money, but currently Jordan and Turkey are assuming the refugee burden of Syria and Italy is getting hammered by the Libyan refugee problem.

Bill M.

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 7:15pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

It seems that Italy is a port of entry for these immigrants to the EU, so why is the EU putting the burden on Italy when in actuality it is an EU problem? The news today of Muslims on one of the immigrant ships throwing the Christian immigrants on the same boat overboard, in effect murdering them, should serve as indicator that these immigrants are not likely to seek to integrate into European culture.


Thu, 04/16/2015 - 1:57pm

There has been since this article a steady drip of news reports, some captured here on SWJ Blog.

Today The Daily Telegraph (UK) had this headline 'Italians revolt against migrant 'invasion' and starts with ' Italians are in growing revolt against the number of migrants arriving on their shores, with more than 10,000 people rescued from the Mediterranean in the past week alone.

The huge influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa is putting an intolerable strain on a country that has been in recession for the past five years...(later)

Nearly 70,000 migrants and asylum seekers are currently being cared for by the Italian authorities and there have been warnings that as many as 500,000 refugees could try to cross to Italy this year'.


Leaving aside the domestic political grandstanding how would Italy stop the migrants actually get into boats, unless they plan to sink any such vessel? We know most of Libya is chaotic, so how will they react, either a people or a state?

This has all the omens of being a 'wicked problem' and no-one really wants to engage, let alone spend money. Italy will stand alone.


Mon, 10/20/2014 - 5:16pm

In reply to by junfgarayzabal

It is a laudable suggestion to 'improve conditions in countries of origin', without delving into what that means and costs - which is another set of issues.

Given the fact that many refugees originate from desperate places or those wracked by warfare it is NOT an option to 'improve conditions'. Those who wait to try to enter the UK @ Calais, France are mainly from - a BBC report - Darfur (Sudan), Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea.

Yes there are political refugees, I expect the majority are 'economic migrants' who simply want a better life. Europe acts as a "magnet" for both and simply cannot have "open borders" (not that you advocate this).


Mon, 10/20/2014 - 9:27am

There are several issues at stake here that should be taken into account.

In first instance, it should be acknowledged that indeed measures should be undertaken in order to solve the problems at hand in the Mediterranean. For that, the EU's Internal Security Fund (ISF) has destines 2,760 million euros for border control, 195 of which have been given to Spain only.

However, as it has been correctly pointed out, immigrants still continue to jump the fence in Ceuta and Melilla nearly on a daily basis and boats are constantly intercepted in the Mediterranean. Therefore, it is not such a crazy idea to actually take a different approach on this matter and maybe try and examine what makes people so desperate that they are willing to risk their lives for a better life opportunity. The existence of foreign fighters cannot be used as an excuse to not look at the underlying causes, neither can so-called "interests" of countries.

Europe should also come to terms with the fact that they are required to exercise their "responsibility to protect". Doing everything at hand to prevent immigrants from arriving to Europe fails to comply with many of the international and European treaties agreed upon.

In this sense, more questions arise. For instance, what happened with the right to non-refoulement (no return)? How are refugees or asylum seekers supposed to be granted their rights? In which way can it be expected that human trafficking victims are identified as such and not merely be confused with irregular immigrants? Many humanitarian issues are raised in a merely military- prevention context.

Of course, European states are not able to cope with large number of immigrants. That is why a new approach is required, more centred in enhancing, not police cooperation, but cooperation between countries to improve conditions in countries of origin.

However, taking the time to actually re-think strategies and invest in creating the necessary conditions in countries of origin for people not to be eager to "make the jump" is costly, both money- and time-wise. I wonder how many governments are actually willing to undergo such efforts...


Mon, 10/20/2014 - 5:09am

Taken from an Italian authored article in the NYT today, to illustrate the size of the SAR problem for Italy:'If you want proof, look at the Strait of Sicily, the gateway to Europe for thousands of migrants from Libya, Syria and Eritrea who pay human traffickers a lot of money to be crammed into unseaworthy boats. Some 118,000 migrants made it to the Italian coast in 2014. At least 4,000 more died at sea by drowning, or from suffocation or dehydration. On Oct. 3, 2013, a 66-foot refugee boat from the Libyan port of Misurata sank just outside the harbor of the island of Lampedusa; 366 people died. There were 155 survivors, 41 of them children. Only one was saved with his family.

Since then, the Italian Navy and Coast Guard have rescued 139,000 men, women and children at sea. The area they patrol extends over almost 17,000 square miles, about twice the size of New Jersey. They are there as part of Operation Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea” in Latin), conducted in coordination with Frontex, the European border management agency.

On Nov. 1, Mare Nostrum will be replaced by Operation Triton, for which only eight countries — Finland, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Latvia, Malta and Iceland — have signed up. The European Union has allocated just $3.7 million to Triton. It won’t be much use. Which means that Italy will necessarily bear the brunt of this humanitarian crisis'.



Sun, 10/19/2014 - 5:56am

If you travel to any of these regions (southern Italy,Spain, Greece etc) the aspect that will really shock you is the appalling racism displayed towards 'colored' people. Having grown up in the 1960s in a society wherein racism towards blacks incited all manner of criminal behaviour up to and including murder,(in other words I'm not easily shocked by racists) I was completely floored by the general attitude to dark-skinned folks .

It was the attitude of the very young and public officialdom (police, civil servants etc.) that indicated to me a deep-rooted problem. As a child I had more black friends than white and racism was generally something that developed in adulthood but in southern Europe you can observe it across all age groups.

I stood transfixed watching an extremely well dressed black American family of two parents and two small children (honestly it was if they modelled themselves on Obama's first year in the White House) being refused service. The police came and basically goaded the father into an argument. He didn't take the bait ( no doubt having clocked the reason for the treatment ) and eventually the other tourists shamed the staff into allowing the family to get what they'd already paid for. It was absolutely disgusting in the very shadow of the Acropolis in the centre of Athens.

The average adult is more than happy to share their racism with you in passing conversations as if my large family of blue-eyed fair-haired folks would completely understand their point of view.

Strangely Portugal was very different and the attitude of people was more normal - I imagine the Brazil influence imposed a more sane attitude to 'colored' folks. It wasn't perfect but it was similar to most western countries.


Bill M.

Sat, 10/18/2014 - 6:23pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

As a U.S. citizen I agree with David. The issue based on my contacts in Italy is the failure of the EU to help Italy with the burdening costs associated with the illegal immigration, so it is rational for them to limit how much they spend to deal with an European problem. Italy is a border country just as Texas is a border state within the U.S., but the illegal immigration problem is a national problem. In Europe, the problem highlights the morale weakness of Europe as a whole. They are very hesitant to sacrifice resources of any kind if they think another country will shoulder the burden. In this case they are happy to let Italy bare the burden. Italy is equally willing to push the problem on by letting the illegals move to other countries in Europe.

This could be an opportunity for EU to actually work together to solve a comm on problem, but it will require tough decisions and a commitment of resources.


Fri, 10/17/2014 - 12:05pm


In my opinion as a European (albeit way after being British) this is NOT an issue for the USA to become involved in.

The shift of refugee flows to the central Mediteranean reflects that the eastern route via Greece / Turkey is far harder now, although many Greeks would say the problem remains - one exploited by New Dawn, a nationalist if not national socialist party. Plus Libya and to a lesser extent Tunisia neither have the capability or will to stop illegal migration.

Yes it is a human tragedy when boats sink and the reception facilities are spartan. Responding to this problem is NOT a naval matter, except when SAR is needed.

Note Italian policy has been and remains that a refugee (very broadly defined) is not detained, let alone returned and very quickly they disappear. A good number aim to enter the UK, hence thousands camped in squalor @ Calais trying to enter illegally.

Europe has plenty of suitable rources that can be deployed for SAR, it lacks the will to act nationally or collectively. What has failed is a clear stance on what happens once refugees land in Europe. I shall leave aside whether they are economic refugees.

The arrival of the USA will not change that. Save your energy for better things.