Coast guard resuce migrants
Italian coast guard personnel rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean sea Italian Coast Guard

The European Union commenced the second phase of Operation Sophia to ward-off human smugglers across the South Mediterranean sea. Starting Wednesday, personnel on EU naval vessels will be able to board, search, seize and divert boats suspected of being used for smuggling humans into Europe.

The operation will be limited to international and EU waters under the jurisdiction of Frontex. The border force of the EU, recently released a report on the new trends of the sea routes used by migrants. The East and South Mediterranean coasts are the main departure points, while the Central Mediterranean sea is the part from where countries like Greece and Italy are easily accessible. More than 2,700 deaths have been reported this year on the South Mediterranean sea route, which connects Europe to the north-African coast.

Only those who survive these journeys make it to European land borders. Most of the deaths on the route have been attributed to human smugglers, who charge refugees exorbitant amounts of money to get migrants into Europe. They often abandon asylum seekers midway out of fear of being caught by authorities. And the EU believes that if it can break the network of human smugglers, illegal border crossings would stop.

Earlier in June, the EU had launched the first phase of the operation called EUNavfor Med to monitor the trafficking patterns of the smugglers. On 28 September it agreed to start a next phase of mission after 50 people were found dead in a boat off the Libyan coast.

"The operation is aimed at disrupting the business model of human smuggling and traffic­king networks in the Mediterranean and to prevent the further loss of life at sea," the EU said in a statement.


Scepticism over the mission

Under the latest operation, naval vessels will not be allowed to operate close to the Libyan coast, which is a major departure point for migrants. However, the EU is hoping to move to the third phase, where it will monitor the Libya's territorial waters.

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles has voiced concerns over the risks involved if naval warships were to take on the smuggling networks. In May the council's secretary general, Michael Diedring had said, "A military operation will only lead to more deaths, either directly or as collateral damage in this unwinnable 'war' against smugglers, or indirectly as desperate refugees take even more dangerous journeys when boats are destroyed."