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The EU Can Now Seize People-Smuggling Boats In The Mediterranean

Under Operation Sophia, naval ships are able to "board, search, seize and divert" vessels suspected of being used by human smugglers.

Posted on October 7, 2015, at 9:28 a.m. ET

The European Union on Wednesday began a new phase in its operation against people-smuggling in the southern Mediterranean Sea, which will allow its boats to intercept vessels.

A man is helped to board a Norwegian vessel during a migrant search-and-rescue mission off the Libyan coast, Sept. 1.
Gregorio Borgia / AP

A man is helped to board a Norwegian vessel during a migrant search-and-rescue mission off the Libyan coast, Sept. 1.

Operation Sophia — which EU officials last month agreed would start Oct. 7 —  allows participating naval ships to "board, search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking on the high seas, in line with international law."

Prior to the operation coming into force, the EU was focused on surveillance and rescue operations, according to the BBC.

The operation was named Sophia after a baby born on a German frigate off the coast of Libya in August.

This is baby Sophia, born on a #Bundeswehr Frigate and eponym /namegiver of operation Sophia http://t.co/bsXO2iJSXY

Sophia is the second phase of the EUNavfor Med operation, which began in June with its naval surveillance phase.

The EU hopes to eventually enact a third phase of the operation which would see it operating in Libyan waters. However, this requires the approval of either the Libyan authorities or the U.N. Security Council, the BBC reported.

The operation will be headquartered in Rome under the command of Rear Adm. Enrico Credendino, who will oversee EU warships in the Mediterranean.

Credendino's deputy Rear Adm. Herve Blejean told the BBC that six ships were being deployed to "start to dismantle this business model by trying to apprehend some suspected smugglers," with the hope that four more vessels would join the operation.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense last month confirmed that Royal Navy warship HMS Richmond is to take part in the operation, The Guardian reported.

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Migrants on a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued 20 miles off the coast of Libya, Aug. 3.
Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

Migrants on a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued 20 miles off the coast of Libya, Aug. 3.

A spokesman for the operation, Capt. Antonello de Renzis Sonnino, told The Guardian that the boats carrying migrants and refugees would be treated the same way as they had been all year: with passengers disembarking in Italy and smugglers being handled over to the Italian police.

Some experts have raised questions about the efficacy of the new "active" phase of the EU operation.

In a briefing note written last week cited by CNN, Thierry Tardy, senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies, said: "There is real uncertainty on whether the operation will ever be able — for either legal or political reasons — to get to the core of its mandate."

Tardy cited a lack of consent by Libya or a UN Security Council resolution, as well as "a general reluctance to engage in coercive action on the part of most EU member states are all reasons that -- individually or collectively -- would make the full implementation of the operation's mandate difficult or simply impossible."

A man sits aboard a rescue vessel after being rescued from a people-smuggler's boat off the coast of Libya, Sept. 2015.
Gregorio Borgia / AP

A man sits aboard a rescue vessel after being rescued from a people-smuggler's boat off the coast of Libya, Sept. 2015.

He added that the move would only succeed in shifting migration patterns to different routes, such as via Turkey and Greece, which has already proved significantly more popular than the voyage from Libya to Italy throughout 2015. Tardy conceded the more aggressive Mediterranean operation may "at least make the journey relatively safer" by diverting migrants and refugees to the continental route.

Of the nearly 534,000 migrants who have landed on EU shores in 2015, over 130,000 have landed in Italy, while nearly 400,000 have landed in Greece, according to figures provided by the International Organization For Migration (IOM) earlier this month.

Some 2,608 deaths were reported in the southern Mediterranean, according to the IOM figures, while 254 were registered in the Aegean Sea, between Turkey and Greece.

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