COLUMN | Mass irregular migration poses growing maritime security challenge for Europe [Naval Gazing]

COLUMN | Mass irregular migration poses growing maritime security challenge for Europe [Naval Gazing]

Migrants on boats are rescued by EUNAVFOR MED personnel as part of Operation Sophia, November 3, 2017. On that date, a total of 263 migrants on boats were rescued within Operation Sophia's area of responsibility in the Central Mediterranean. (Photo: EUNAVFOR MED)

The safety and political ramifications of the large numbers of irregular migrants (IM) travelling by small boats from the French coast to England continues to attract a great deal of media coverage. There is, though, a far wider European dimension to the IM problem, which is now posing a major maritime security challenge. This article seeks to analyse what is really going on.

A hugely profitable racket

So far in 2023, organised crime groups have reaped fortunes by facilitating the passage of about 45,000 IMs by inflatable craft – or usually decrepit wooden vessels – with the prime IM crossing season yet to begin. The vessels are almost invariably seriously overcrowded, and some 600 IMs are believed to have perished as a result of their boats capsizing or foundering due to their poor condition.

EU naval patrols curtailed

Prior to 2019, an EU naval force operating under Operation Sophia patrolled the Mediterranean in order to intercept IM boats and rescue their occupants. Operation Sophia was wound down, however, as Brussels feared it had become a “pull factor”. A successor, Operation Irini, was subsequently established, but it is a modest force, focused mainly on countering arms smuggling into Libya, and has had relatively little involvement with irregular migration. It is currently commanded by an Italian Rear-Admiral and is due to be augmented by the Irish Naval Service offshore patrol ship James Joyce later this year,

Libya Coast Guard – a controversial force

The EU has effectively delegated Mediterranean patrolling to the Libya Coast Guard (LCG). This decision was a controversial one, as the LCG has been subject to allegations of corruption and brutality and is rumoured to be under the control of a local warlord.

The LCG currently operates ex-Italian Corrubia-class patrol craft and receives considerable funding and logistical support from Rome. Its inventory is now being significantly bolstered by five Class 300 patrol boats, which are being constructed by Cantiere Navale Vittoria Shipyard near Venice. These new 20-metre, self-righting assets can reportedly each accommodate up to 200 people.

The LCG has reportedly rescued about 5,000 IMs so far this year.

NGO rescue ships a major presence

The largest presence in the Mediterranean, though, is provided by a flotilla of civilian rescue vessels, operated by a range of humanitarian organisations and manned by volunteers. More than 50 such ships have operated in the sea over the years. Currently, at least 17 are deployed. The NGO rescue vessels include former offshore support vessels, survey ships, patrol vessels, cargo ships, research vessels, and fishing boats.

Most of the ships are financed by charitable organisations, some by individuals. There seems to be no shortage of funding to ensure that the ships remain operational. European governments, particularly Italy’s, have voiced strong objections to the activities of these ships and regularly impound them, citing alleged breaches of safety regulations. However, these same governments have generally continued to accept IMs when the NGO craft bring them into harbour.

Greece’s Hellenic Coast Guard, though, now operates a pushback policy, expelling any IM boats that arrive in its waters, although the Greek government strongly refutes reports that violence has been used against IMs. Meanwhile, Malta no longer responds to reports of IM boats needing assistance.

Italian Coast Guard continues rescue operations

The Italian government forcibly objects to the current Mediterranean migration situation, but the Italian Coast Guard (ICG) nevertheless continues to deploy in response to reports of distressed IM boats. In mid-April, the ICG led a complex operation involving the rescue of 1,200 IMs from two boats.

A recent new trend has seen many IM boats set out from Tunisia, carrying migrants from a number of different countries, mainly from the Middle East. It seems certain that surging numbers of IMs will pose a major maritime security problem for European maritime forces in the years ahead.

Click here for more news stories, feature articles, and vessel reviews as part of this month’s focus on emergency services vessels.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.