Europe’s increasingly militaristic reaction to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea evidences an offensive rather than rescue focused mind-set. While smugglers and traffickers must be stopped, the international shipping industry needs Europe’s priorities to be at least evenly weighted. The expectation cannot continue that private shipping businesses and their personnel will continue to carry out large scale search and rescue operations during international crises.
In June, the European Union’s mission EUNAVFOR Med was launched to disrupt the smuggler business model, including pinpointing, capturing, and destroying smuggler boats. However, fears that militarism will see an evolution and escalation of violence without the clear sanction of international law appear to be emerging.
At the end of June, Spain, which has so far dedicated 250 personnel and a reconnaissance aircraft to EUNAVFOR Med, announced that international military intervention in Libyan territory is “probable”. The link between people smugglers and Islamic State/Daesh, which is said to be supporting Libyan smugglers, is used to justify this stand: the destabilisation of North Africa would put Spain’s security at risk, said foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo.
A further sign of this trend is the UK’s withdrawal of its flagship, the amphibious assault vessel HMS Bulwark, from search and rescue operations after 60 days at sea. The 14,835 tonne, 176 m long vessel was replaced with the hydro- and oceanographic survey ship HMS Enterprise (3,600 tonnes, 90 m). The Bulwark, which has 372 crew members, rescued over 3,000 people. By contrast, the 72-man Enterprise is tasked with intelligence gathering; it will only participate in search and rescue in the manner “customary for all maritime vessels”, said the Royal Navy in a statement.
When private commercial vessels and their crews are at risk, rescues should have at least equal state focus as with tackling crime. Rescuers are reportedly losing their lives in these incidents.
The inadequacy of and consequent risks to commercial vessels in carrying out large-scale rescues can be deduced from comments made by HMS Bulwark’s captain Nick Cooke-Priest. He described rescues as “like an amphibious operation” – using “landing craft and aircraft in multiple waves”, he said: “It’s only through being trained for high intensity warfighting operations that we are able to execute such activities in peacetime.”
The positive impact of increased national search and rescue resources has been noted by private rescue operations since April. But the International Chamber of Shipping again spoke out this month against the “continuing failure” of governments “to provide adequate state-backed rescue resources, as required by international law”.
By splitting its priorities unevenly, Europe fails to offer sufficient support to the shipping industry. It is hypocrisy to maintain calls for merchant shipping to ‘meet its obligations under international law’, and hazardously ignores the facts. Unlike HMS Bulwark, merchant ships are not equipped with hundreds of personnel “trained for high intensity warfighting operations”.