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Opinion

Opinion: Military force against human traffickers

The EU intends to use military force against human traffickers in Northern Africa. However, they will end up fighting against the refugees, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.

A comprehensive approach to tackling migrant issues is slowly taking shape: it encompasses rescuing and accepting refugees, fighting smugglers and combatting the cause of flight itself. It's high time something was done about the problems. Previous efforts have focused on dealing with migrants who have already reached Europe. For the time being, their acceptance relies on the kindness of a few nations but the situation cannot be maintained in the long run.

Allocation quotas, as suggested by the EU Commission, are an illusion since many EU states are not favorably disposed towards the idea. The ascent of the xenophobic, populist party in Denmark's parliamentary elections has once again shown what happens when citizens are given the impression that politicians have lost their grip on immigration. Unfortunately, this is actually a valid concern.

Libya longs for Gadhafi again

The recently approved military mission will soon launch its first phase, which is straightforward, yet frustrating: at first, when ships, submarines, satellites or drones deliver reconnaissance data, the EU will not be able to more than merely identify the routes smugglers take and who their key players are. One wonders why it took so long to organize these coordinated efforts. Perhaps the traumatic experiences needed to intensify before anyone took action.

Acquiring knowledge about smuggler networks is only the first step, of course. Phases two and three involve searching for the boats and destroying them - even in Libya's territorial waters or on land. To do this, either a UN mandate or the Libyan government's approval is, of course, necessary. But there is no single Libyan government; instead, there are two who are fighting each other, plus militia groups who don't listen to anyone. Anarchy reigns in Libya, the country from which over 80 percent of the Mediterranean refugees originate. Cynical Europeans long for the days when former President Moammar Gadhafi accepted European money to prevent refugees from taking the trip across the Mediterranean.

Building state structures is tedious

Nevertheless, a UN mandate is hard to come by, especially as it requires Russia's approval. Now that Brussels has just extended the sanctions against Russia, Moscow will certainly not do Europe this diplomatic favor. So now, the EU has to resort to the tedious and risky task of establishing cooperation with a failed state at Europe's doorstep.

Europe has to pay the price for not having initiated convincing measures to stabilize Libya and other states in the region. A broadly defined development policy, which fosters the creation of democratic state structures, has only been seen as part of the larger picture of migration policy.

Exodus continues

In other words, phases two and three of the measures against smugglers will not be put into action any time soon. So basically, the mass exodus from Africa and the Middle East will continue. In their campaign against human traffickers, European politicians frequently use words like "inhuman" or "cruel" or similar expressions. Yet the refugees do not share these views. To them, the smugglers provide a service, which unfortunately costs them a fortune and possibly their lives but is nonetheless their only chance of reaching Europe.

To put it frankly, the battle against human traffickers is actually a battle against refugees as long as there are no legal paths to Europe. And since instability in different regions increases the pressure on people to flee, refugees will always find new escape routes. Combatting smugglers and the reasons for human flight still make sense, but they should not create the illusion that Europe will soon succeed in solving the problem.

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