HMS Richmond
The Royal Navy Frigate HMS Richmond (pictured) and HMS Enterprise will search, seize and divert smuggling vessels Reuters

British naval vessels embedded within EU forces operating against people smugglers in the Mediterranean have begun targeting ships used by criminal gangs to traffic refugees across the deadly sea route in their hundreds of thousands.

In the new phase of the mission – renamed Operation Sophia - the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Richmond and HMS Enterprise will search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking on the high seas. The commander of Operation Sophia, Rear Admiral Credendino, overseeing the mission from Rome, called for the escalation of tactics after member states provided further military assets at an EU conference in September.

In eight separate missions off the coast of Libya on 7 October, 938 migrants were rescued by the Italian coastguard, in concert with the Italian Naval ship the Aviere and the Spanish ship Rio Segura. The EU has said the operation is aimed at disrupting the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Mediterranean and preventing the loss of life the smuggling has caused.

However, neither the Royal Navy nor its EU partners will target the operations of the people smugglers on the ground in restive Libya. The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Frederica Mogherini, has outlined that this step would require a UN mandate. Military leaders loyal to Libya's internationally recognised government have threatened to launch strikes against unauthorised military vessels in their waters.

A view of the bodies
Bodies of dead migrants that were recovered by the Libyan coastguard after a boat sank off the coastal town of Zuwara, west of TripoliReuters

In past phases of the mission, the British Navy vessel HMS Enterprise has observed people smuggling operations from Libya to Italy and carried out search and rescue operations. HMS Bulwark, a Royal navy assault ship has in the past also been tasked with rescue missions off the coast of North Africa.

Since the beginning of 2015, more than 130,000 refugees and migrants have arrived on mainland Europe from across the Mediterranean, predominantly from Libya but also from Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. More than 2,700 have died on the crossing.

Speaking in September when the UK pledged HMS Richmond and HMS Enterprise to the mission, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: "The vital work of HMS Bulwark, HMS Enterprise and our Merlin helicopters shows the UK's commitment to tackling the refugee crisis at source.

"The Royal Navy has rescued thousands of people from peril but we've been clear we have to tackle the gangs behind this, which is why it's important the mission moves to the next phase. We will not stand by and let this smuggling trade escalate; we will confront this criminal activity which risks the lives of innocent people every day."