The United Nations refugee chief Tuesday warned the European Union about its planned military operation to target people-smugglers in the Mediterranean, saying migrants attempting the risky sea crossing must be protected.
Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, welcomed the initial intelligence-gathering phase of the new mission, which could begin as early as next week, but said rescuing migrants at sea should be the top priority.
More than 100,000 people have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, and some 1,800 have drowned trying.
Many of them have been fleeing war or poverty in parts of Africa and the Middle East and paid huge sums to risk their lives in barely seaworthy boats for a chance of reaching Europe.
EU leaders agreed at a summit in April, overshadowed by the sinking of a rickety migrant boat with the loss of 800 lives, to formulate a plan to tackle the crisis at source on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, including a military option to go after smugglers in Libya.
On Monday EU foreign ministers approved the launch of a three-stage military strategy beginning with intelligence-gathering.
Guterres, visiting Afghan refugee facilities in Pakistan, said the lives of those attempting the crossing must come first.
“Our position has been very clear: first priority rescue at sea — lives need to be saved, nobody should be left to die in the Mediterranean,” he said.
The 28-nation EU scaled down its search and rescue operations last year, to the dismay of Italy, where the bulk of the migrants arrive.
The new military mission, dubbed “EU NAVFOR Med”, will initially involve five warships, two submarines, three maritime patrol aircraft, drones and helicopters.
– ‘Protect victims’ –
Guterres said action to deal with those who were cashing in on the Mediterranean migrant crisis was welcome, but international law must be respected.
“Smuggling and trafficking are horrible things. People are exploited, their rights are violated, people die in unseaworthy boats,” he said.
“So whatever can be done to crack down on traffickers and smugglers is positive, with one essential condition — that the protection of the victims is guaranteed and the access to European territory is guaranteed.”
Last week the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on the EU to open its doors wider to migrants and said the bloc could easily take in a million refugees.
The Mediterranean migration crisis has become a hugely sensitive political issue in Europe, driving gains for far-right and eurosceptic parties across the continent.
The second phase of the EU mission involves intervention to board and disable smuggler vessels and arrest the traffickers, while the third would extend these actions into Libyan waters and possibly inside the country itself.
Recognising the reluctance of some members to commit to the potentially complex and dangerous second and third stages, the April summit agreed a UN Security Council resolution would be needed before they went ahead.
The situation is complicated by the unstable picture in Libya, where rival factions are fighting for control and the internationally-recognised government has been forced to flee the capital.