E.U. seeks U.N. authority for military action against migrant smugglers

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The European Union began a push Monday for U.N. authorization to deploy military force in the Mediterranean to stop migrant smugglers, even as a proposal to more evenly share the burden of refugees foundered amid intra-European divisions.

At U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told the Security Council that the unprecedented flow of migrants seeking to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean has necessitated “an exceptional response.”

“We cannot do it alone. This has to be a common global effort. That’s why we count on your support to save lives and dismantle criminal organizations that are exploiting people’s desperation,” Mogherini told the 15-nation council.

The E.U. proposal would allow the bloc to deploy military force to seize and destroy smugglers’ ships before they take on their human cargo.

E.U. leaders see the program as an essential step to curb the dangerous crossings, which have left 1,800 people dead this year as the packed and poorly maintained ships have sunk, run aground or overturned on the high seas. The death toll is 20 times as high as it was at this time last year.

But it is unclear whether the E.U. can win Security Council support. Russia has said it opposes any attempt to destroy smugglers’ ships, arguing that the owners in many cases do not know the purpose for which the vessels are being used. Authorities in Libya, the anarchic and divided nation that is the primary source of migrant smuggling, have been either cool to the idea or openly hostile.

Rights groups, meanwhile, say that a focus on military action will not solve the crisis, and may make it worse. Amnesty International released a report Monday that described the horrendous living conditions for migrants in Libya and concluded that military efforts would “effectively contribute to migrants and refugees being trapped in Libya and expose them to a risk of serious human rights abuses.”

The group urged Tunisia and Egypt to open their borders to migrants seeking an escape from Libya, allowing them a safer route out than the one by sea.

The E.U. has been roundly criticized for not doing enough to stem the crisis, which is being fed by an exodus of people from Africa and the Middle East fleeing war, poverty and oppression. An Italian-run search-and-rescue mission estimated to have saved more than 100,000 lives was canceled last year. After more than 800 people died in a single shipwreck last month, E.U. officials voted to triple funding for a new maritime patrol mission, though it remains more limited in scope than its predecessor.

Meanwhile, an E.U. proposal to more evenly distribute asylum seekers across Europe appeared to be in trouble Monday, even before it is due to be officially unveiled.

The European Commission is expected to release the plan on Wednesday. It calls for establishing E.U.-wide quotas that would dictate the minimum number of asylum seekers accepted by each of the union’s 28 members. The idea is to ease the burden on front-line states along Europe’s southern periphery, which are suffering under the strain of the tens of thousands of migrants seeking entry. The proposal is strongly backed by those countries and by Germany, which registers more asylum applications than any other nation in Europe.

But it has been vigorously opposed by several Eastern European nations, as well as by Britain, where the Conservative government is under intense pressure to limit immigration.

A British government spokesman, speaking Monday under customary rules of anonymity, cited previous statements by Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain “would be playing its role in tackling the current crisis in the Mediterranean but that our focus would be on saving lives, not offering people asylum in the U.K.”

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