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Helping Europe with its Sea
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.