The European Union has been struggling to cope with a surge of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. The high season has not yet begun, and already hundreds have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Thousands more have arrived on the Continent to seek protection. In response, the EU is planning a combined military campaign by air, sea, and possibly land against the smuggling networks. Can such a plan succeed? And could the lessons of Europe be applied to our own migration crisis along the Southern border?

Just because you have a hammer does not mean every problem is a nail.

According to a recent article about the EU plan:
The campaign’s aim is defined as “to disrupt the business model of the smugglers, achieved by undertaking systematic efforts to identify, seize/capture, and destroy vessels and assets before they are used by smugglers … The operation will need to be phased in and will be heavily dependent on intelligence.

Military operations would focus on actions “inside Libya’s internal and territorial waters and the coast,” and possibly “ashore,” as well.

The downsides of such an operation are fairly obvious. As an EU planning document admits, the campaign could result in innocent people being killed: “Boarding operations against smugglers in the presence of migrants has a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.” There are also difficult practical problems—smugglers frequently rent boats from fisherman and then fill the boat with migrants shortly before they sail. So there is little time to identify which boats are being used for human cargo and to neutralize them before people are aboard. Also, the Libyan coast is dangerous. Different militias control different parts of the country, and some have the capacity to target European warships and aircraft. Finally, and maybe most significantly, the migrants are desperate people fleeing for their lives, so it is unclear whether they would be dissuaded from their journey if it were marginally more difficult.

On the other hand, large numbers of people are already dying at sea (about 2,000 so far this year), and there is little doubt that the impunity the smugglers enjoy encourages them to continue their activities. There is also some evidence that the smugglers are encouraging certain people to make the journey, when they would be better off staying put. But the question is, Can military force make the situation better?

First, I suppose it depends on how we define “better.” If we mean that Europe will have to deal with fewer migrants, then military action against the smugglers may make things “better,” at least to some degree. We’ve seen this story before in the militarization of the drug war. The costs to the drug smugglers goes up, the cost of the product goes up, and—perhaps—fewer drugs get through. The key difference between smuggling humans and smuggling drugs is that each person must be able to pay for the cost of his trip. If the cost to smuggle drugs goes up, the users pay, but if the cost of human trafficking goes up, the trafficked people must pay. If action against the traffickers increases the cost of passage, maybe fewer people will be able to afford the journey. And if fewer migrants reach Europe, the situation will be “better” in that Europe will not have to deal with it.

But if “better” means actually addressing the problem, interdicting smugglers will likely not make the situation any better. If the asylum seekers were merely economic migrants, they might be dissuaded from making the trip. But most of the people crossing the Med are fleeing for their lives--they are from places like Syria and Eritrea, where return to the home country is unthinkable. Cutting off the route to Europe will--at best--force them to go somewhere else.

While Europe does bear some of the blame for the current mess in the Middle East and Africa (due to colonialism and economic exploitation), I don't believe that the Europeans can be expected to accept every migrant who come their way. However, I do think Europe--and the rest of the world--has a moral obligation to help legitimate refugees fleeing violence and persecution. Perhaps European interests would be better served by using its military and logistical power to establish better safe havens for refugees, and to create an orderly resettlement process for those who will likely never return home.

And what of America? Is there a military solution to our own migrant crisis? Much of the migration to our country is driven by gang and cartel violence in Central America and Mexico. Last year, the Congressional Research Service published a report about the U.S. government's role in combating Central American gangs. The report details our efforts on the law enforcement and preventative sides of the gang problem. In short, it seems that a law enforcement-only approach (such as Mano Duro in El Salvador) is not as effective as a more holistic approach, and so the effectiveness of throwing additional military forces against the gangs seems doubtful.

Perhaps the border itself could be further militarized, but it is difficult to see how this would make much difference either. The number of agents at the border is at an all time high, and the number of apprehensions has dropped to 1970s levels (indicating fewer people attempting to enter illegally). The bigger problem these days is the large number of people surrendering at the border and requesting asylum, and of course this is not a problem amenable to a military solution.

For us and for the Europeans, the influx of asylum seekers presents a serious challenge. Rather than using military force to attack smugglers and deflect the problem, we would be better off addressing root causes and protecting vulnerable people from harm.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: