Reflections on the EU's "Operation Sophia"

By Dan Cadman on May 23, 2016

Not quite two weeks ago, the British House of Lords issued a report based on their examination of "Operation Sophia" and declared it to be a failure. Operation Sophia is the European Union's attempt to end the maritime smuggling of people from the shores of North Africa, primarily Libya, into the EU via Italy.

Various British media, including the BBC and the Telegraph, immediately trumpeted the news. That cannot have pleased either EU bureaucrats and sophisticates in Brussels or the anti-Brexit forces in Britain, including such unlikely bed partners as Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party and his opposition in the Labour Party given that migration, legal and illegal, is such a sensitive topic right now and inextricably entwined with the thorny issue of Britain's continued (or abandoned) EU membership.

Of course Operation Sophia is a failure. From time immemorial, the coastal peoples of North Africa have been fishermen, pirates, or smugglers of contraband and humans, exactly as opportunity provides (think "Barbary States"). Arrest one smuggler, another will take his place; destroy one boat or raft, more will be found. Laudable as anti-smuggling measures are, the key problem is that Operation Sophia focuses on the symptom and not the cause.

When government maritime operations include a component that plucks aliens out of the sea and places them directly onto the shores of the desired destination, they incentivize mass illegal migration. Smugglers only exist as long as there is a profitable market for their services. The EU is still depositing those pulled out of the waters of the Mediterranean onto Italian territory, from whence they can be "redistributed" throughout Europe, although the backlash against that notion — which has been pushed by the German and French governments — has been growing among other continental EU member states not so pleased with being recipients.

In fact, the naval and coast guard vessels plying the waters of the mid- and western Med as a part of Operation Sophia have actually made it easier for smugglers to simply tow unseaworthy vessels crammed with people out to the midway point and abandon them to be found by their official rescuers, inshallah, or drown as the case may be; it makes little difference to the smugglers as long as they have been paid.

It would be easy to disdain the Europeans as naive and foolhardy for not making the logical linkage between their treatment of the aliens and the continued flow. But out own government is doing much the same thing. Consider its outrageous "Central American Minors" program to fly aliens — by no means all of them children, notwithstanding the misleading name — to the United States, even when they fail to qualify for refugee status (see here and here). This is done in the name of "family unification", even when they are being unified with parents, siblings, and children who are themselves illegally in the country.

Or consider our government's toleration of the unabated flow of Cubans into Central and South American countries, and their movement northward, even via chartered flights to deliver them to southern land ports of entry where they are paroled into the United States despite their lack of visas or other entry documents, or even any scintilla of evidence that they are legitimate asylees who fear persecution from the Cuban government. In this latter case, as I mentioned in a recent teleconference, I have begun to suspect — although I cannot prove it — that in some surreptitious way or another, our very own government has underwritten the cost of those flights; Latin countries generally don't have the deep pockets that it takes to pay for charter aircraft, which are expensive.

If there is a difference between the reactions of the EU and the U.S. governments right now, it may very well be that the Europeans are in fact naifs who don't have enough experience with illegal migration in the modern context to be able to connect the dots, whereas given our country's depth and breadth of experience, this administration knows very well what it is doing. Having dismantled the mechanisms of immigration enforcement, they are now doing what they can in the waning months of their rule to ensure that the breakdown is as permanent as they can make it, and the "Take Care Clause" of the Constitution be damned.