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The British foreign secretary has called for an EU naval force to turn back human smugglers' boats instead of capturing and destroying them. However, there is little legal ground to carry out such a plan.
UK top diplomat Boris Johnson said on Thursday that instead of disrupting the human trafficking networks bringing migrants to Europe, the EU should turn back boats as soon as they leave Libya.
Johnson was speaking from Rome, where he met with his Italian counterpart, Paolo Gentiloni. Italy has been on the forefront of the continent's migrant crisis due to its close proximity to northern Africa, taking in some 400,000 refugees in the past three years.
In 2015, the European Union launched Operation Sophia, a naval force tasked with catching human smugglers and destroying their vessels.
"I think, personally, [the boats] should be turned back as close to the shore as possible so they don't reach the Italian mainland and that there is more of a deterrent," said Johnson, before mistakenly adding "I think I am right in saying we have turned back about 200,000 migrants."
"Sorry, saved, saved. Thank you. We have saved 200,000 migrants and turned back 240 boats," he said after being corrected by another diplomat.
Johnson did not mention under what context the 240 boats were turned back.
Refugee influx not slowing for some
It is against the law to turn the vessels back after they have entered international waters. And as the UN-backed unity government in Libya has declined to invite European ships into its territory, saying it would undermine crucial state-building efforts, there is little legal basis for returning the boats to Libya from inside Libyan waters.
As northern European nations see an easing refugee influx, Mediterranean nations like Italy have not fare the same. According to a UN report released earlier on Thursday, there were at least 200,000 refugees waiting in Libyan ports to make the journey to Europe. Frontex, the European Union border patrol agency, also said that some 23,000 migrants made it to the Italian coast in August, around the same as came ashore in that month last year.
es/sms (AFP, Reuters)