HMS Bulwark
An Italian police car patrols in front of British warship HMS Bulwark as migrants disembark from the shipREUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

Two months after 900 migrants died in the Mediterranean when their boat capsized, the EU has announced it is starting naval military operations to end human trafficking there.

The UK will be part of the mission, but will remain "a small cog" in the overall operations, according to a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson.

Since it was deployed on 5 May, Britain's HMS Bulwark has saved some 4,000 migrant lives, according to the MoD. However, it will return to shore in the first week of July.

In its place, the UK will launch the oceanographic vessel HMS Enterprise. Its task will be to support what is no longer a search-and-rescue mission, but a full-fledged military naval operation.

On 22 June the EU announced EUNAVFOR Med, a new mission to "identify, capture and dispose of vessels" operated by human traffickers and those helping migrant smugglers.

"It is probably the first time the European Union takes the issue of migration so seriously [and decides to launch an operation] in such a fast way, with unanimity and unity," said Federica Mogherini, head of EU Foreign Affairs.

"The target," she said, "are not the migrants, the targets are those who are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths." By April 2015 some 1,750 migrants had died in the Mediterranean this year alone. Some 29,000 have died there since 2000, according to investigative group Migrant Files.

In the first phase of the new operation the Enterprise, a survey ship, will help build a picture of how the human traffickers work in the Mediterranean — their network, their routes, vessels, and practices.

Although the MoD would not reveal HMS Enterprise's role, oceanographic research vessels often carry environmental sensors and instruments capable of hydrographic sounding of shores and the seabed, as well as unmanned underwater vehicles. The ship was designed to support submarine and amphibious operations and will fall under the authority of Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino.

Once the trafficking operations are understood, the plan may then move on to second and third phases with the aim of disrupting and destroying the smuggling network. The first phase of the mission is expected to cost €11.82m (£8.5m) in its first year.

"If we're going to keep this up over many months," said an MoD spokesman, "the HMS Bulwark, which carried two Merlin helicopters, will need to be brought back to shore for maintenance". The Enterprise will continue to assist migrants in trouble, but it can only carry about 120 people, the spokesperson added.

The EU's approach, however, is not just a military operation said Mogherini, pointing out that she has been working with countries in North Africa such as Niger to address the larger problems that lead many to make the perilous escape from the region.

"We are working on economic opportunities, employment opportunities for the young people," she said, citing the root causes of the problem to be poverty and crises and conflicts in Syria, in Yemen and in Libya.