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Europe’s Race to the Bottom on Refugees

LONDON – European defense and foreign ministers agreed on Monday to an ambitious naval operation – involving contributions from 12 countries and over 1,000 troops – to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking in the Mediterranean. But military action alone will not end the migration crisis – a crisis that, this year alone, has led to the deaths of more than 1,800 people trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa.

The expansion of Europe’s naval presence in the Mediterranean this spring has had benefits. It led to a massive 95% decline in the death rate of those attempting to make the journey to Europe from Africa, with only a few dozen asylum seekers having died in the last two months.

The latest initiative arises from the EU's subsequent attempts to design a military effort that could “disrupt the business model” of smugglers. And, ostensibly, it was successful even before it began, with arrivals to Italy from Libya declining significantly. But, in fact, the smugglers have simply shifted their routes, and are now increasingly making their way toward Greece from Turkey and Egypt, or entering the European Union via the land route in the Balkans. The smugglers are one step ahead of the posse.

Beyond its practical shortcomings, the EU’s military-based approach to the migration crisis is flawed, because it may appear to criminalize migrants and asylum seekers – desperate people who are fleeing violence and persecution at home – in the public mind. The majority of those who reach Europe and file asylum claims are judged by EU member states as having a legitimate claim to international protection.