In several hours of talks in Brussels on Monday, EU foreign and defense ministers laid the foundations for an unprecedented military mission aimed at targeting people smugglers and preventing migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.
EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini said she hoped to have the legal framework for launching the operation in June.
"When we have the political will and determination to act quickly, we can do it," Mogherini told media following the meeting, which came a month after a mass drowning off Libya's coast which shocked Europe.
The first phase of the plan centered on gathering intelligence about the smugglers' networks. The EU would seek a mandate from the United Nations for further steps including seizing smuggler vessels in international or Libyan territorial waters, and destroying those boats with the aim of disrupting the smugglers' operations.
More than 5,000 migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe during the past 18 months. Their journeys are organized by people smuggling networks who charge hundreds of euros per person. The Mediterranean crossings often launch from Libya, where the smugglers have taken advantage of ongoing political instability. Those who do reach Europe often face harsh conditions and no guarantee of being accepted as refugees.
Rights groups have expressed reservations towards using military means. Germany-based Catholic relief organization Misereor sharply criticized the proposals.
"Highly risky actions to fight people smugglers, in which one also has to worry that the refugees themselves - those these operations are suppose to be helping - could be struck in military attacks against boats, are the wrong answer to the deaths in the Mediterranean," Misereor managing director Martin Bröckelmann-Simon told the Catholic news agency KNA on Monday in Aachen. He added that it was wars, violence and poverty in the nations the people came from which caused so many to migrate, not the human traffickers.
Included in a comprehensive EU migration policy announced earlier in May is a provision for member states to receive a quota of asylum applicants. The measure is aimed at spreading the burden from Italy, Greece and Malta, where most of the migrants first arrive. Current EU rules state that asylum seekers must apply in the first EU member country in which they set foot.
se/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, KNA)