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Seizing boats may not stop dangerous crossings

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The European Union ramped up its attempt to curb human smuggling Wednesday. “Operation Sophia” will see EU warships starting to search and seize boats in international waters suspected of trafficking people.

The business of smuggling migrants from Africa’s north coast is as big as it is grim. Hundreds of people pay thousands a head for the dangerous journey. According to the International Organization for Migration, about 2,987 migrants have died making the crossing so far this year, and 557,899 have attempted the journey.

Overhead is low for these smugglers. The majority of crossings are in wooden or inflatable boats. These vessels are worth “next to nothing,” David Osler, finance editor of the shipping journal Lloyd’s List, said in an email interview. On occasion, smugglers use larger cargo ships. They’re ancient and likely bought at scrap value if they’re bought legitimately at all.

The EU move comes after several months of training and surveillance along smuggling routes, and intervening when necessary. The EU’s diplomatic service said it saved about 3,000 migrants and helped put 16 alleged smugglers behind bars during this phase.

That said, boats often depart Libyan waters for Italy or Malta without any actual smugglers aboard, said Guardian migration reporter Patrick Kingsley, just a GPS unit or a volunteer navigator. He’s watched rescues, and said any smugglers out in the water are usually low-level, while the boats are dangerously full.

“It’s slightly overwhelming, because you realize had the boat come maybe an hour later, maybe two hours later, it’s quite possible that that boat wouldn’t be there, because they’re not very stable. There’s so many people on them, the smallest movement might overbalance them and sort of capsize,” Kingsley said. “Additionally, people who are trapped below the decks next to the engine are at risk of suffocation, and quite often you see reports that when they’re rescued, these boats have got five, 10, sometimes 50 corpses in the bottom because these people have choked.”

Operation Sophia — named for a child who was born after her mother was rescued from one of these vessels — aims to dismantle some of this business. But some people working in the region have doubts about how effective it will be.

The BBC notes that the EU is working against some other limitations. The EU has deployed six ships so far, along with some drones and helicopters, and it has to stay in international waters. In order to get more aggressive and seize ships off Lybia’s coast, the EU will need permission from the Lybian government or the United Nations. The press contact for the operation hasn’t yet responded for a request for comment.

An IOM official has publicly warned the EU that seizing and diverting boats will do little to stop smuggling, and IOM press officer Joel Millman echoed the sentiment. While the organization supports the EU’s efforts, he said he’s skeptical that they’ll address the real problem. A former migration reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Millman compared the Mediterranean to the U.S.-Mexico border, where smugglers would buy dirt-cheap cars to send across the border, and treating them as disposable.

That seems to be the case in the Mediterranean too. Rescuers were often destroying boats after rescuing the migrants on board, Kingsley said, which causes smugglers to use more inflatable rafts instead. These crafts, designed to hold a couple dozen soldiers, are often filled with 100 or more people. They’re more disposable but also more dangerous.

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