An Italian naval mission in Libyan waters is likely to help stem the flow of migrants in the short term, but smugglers will adapt, according to the leading international expert on maritime security.
Dr. Sebastian Bruns, director of the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the Insitute of Security Policy in Kiel, Germany, also raised concerns about barring humanitarian vessels, particularly if it happens in international waters.
In a comprehensive response to questions posed by Maghreb Daily Wire, Bruns delivered his assessment of the present situation, the involvement of the Italians, the nature of the operation, and what might happen going forward. He was commenting amid reports of a significant decrease in the number of migrants on the waters.
"In maritime strategy terms, the current mission would probably be characterized as to a blockade or quarantine with constant naval presence mixed into it," Bruns said. "It is likely to have an effect in the short run on the main challenge, but migrant flows and human trafficking will adapt – finding other routes."
Bruns also addressed one issue of concern, the blocking of non-government (NGO) crafts in and out of Libyan waters, specifically ones involved in rescuing dangerously overloaded crafts. Non-government organizations have announced the suspension of operations, citing a "threat" from Libyan authorities.
The Libyans announced they were restricting access for humanitarian vessels into international waters, according to the NGOs.
"That move is problematic when it comes to inside Libyan waters, and it is outright unlawful when it comes to international waters where a different set of rules is in place altogether," Bruns said. "Adhering to the international SOLAS code (Security Of Life At Sea), any vessel must come to another ship in distress. A failure to do so constitutes a harsh break with international norms. In many countries it leads to a criminal investigation."
He added that by banning rescue operations inside the 12 nautical miles of Libyan waters, Libya and Italy "hope to remove another visible incentive for people to put to sea in unseaworthy boats."
Bruns believes the solution is not to ban others, but introduce "an integrated solution" that involves humanitarian vessels. The maritime security expert has studied the early stages of the mission, noting that the Italians are using "smaller assets like frigates, corvettes, and offshore patrol vessels."
"The mission utilizes naval assets in rather non-traditional ways, namely in a diplomatic and in a constabulary role, but not in a genuinely military role," he said. "There is also a constabulary of naval forces because the Italian navy is trying to uphold good order at sea, that is curtailing the chaos of the migrant flow and the mixing of humanitarian assistance NGO vessels, other warships, and cargo ships passing the area, and supporting a fellow coast guard/navy – Libya."
Bruns added, "One could say that the Italian Navy is trying to re-establish navy-to-navy (or navy-to-coast-guard) ties with Libya to de-privatize security. After all, the NGOs and their rescue ships had privatized the rescue effort, right to the point where they lurked close enough to the Libyan coast to encourage human trafficking."
But the Italian Navy faces dangers, said Bruns, particularly if there is a "catastrophic sinking" of a refugee boat with hundreds of casualties that could potentially lead to public outrage.
A further danger for Italy is that if the civil conflict in Libya escalates, then the country could find itself drawn in to a civil conflict. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who controls large swathes of the eastern part of the country, has already threatened to fire on Italian vessels.
"I am not aware of any major naval assets that Gen. Haftar has at his disposal," Bruns said. "It is more likely that stand-off weapons such as missiles could be directed at a foreign warships cooperating with the U.N.-backed government."
On a more positive note, Bruns said that if Libya remains somewhat stable, the Italian navy "could train and equip, perhaps with E.U. aid, a functioning Libyan coast guard."
But he added, that's "a long shot."