UNITED NATIONS — Refugees and migrants intercepted at sea will not "be sent back against their will," the European Union's top diplomat assured the U.N. Security Council on Monday, citing a proposed EU maritime operation against the growing wave of migrant smuggling from north Africa.
Federica Mogherini addressed the council as the 28-member EU prepares to start making decisions next week on an operation to identify, capture and destroy boats before they are used by migrant smugglers.
Stressing the urgency of the crisis as migrants continue to set off from the north African coast toward Europe and many die, Mogherini later told reporters that the EU is prepared to take certain steps before the council adopts any resolution authorizing the operation — even as a draft was expected to circulate to all 15 council members within hours. She would not say what those steps are.
Concerns remained even among some council members that the migrants themselves will be harmed, sent back or not be allowed to seek better lives. "No one is thinking of bombing," Mogherini said briskly.
When asked about Russia, which has opposed destroying smugglers' boats, she said she had not found resistance from any council member. But she said a lot of work remains on the council draft resolution, even though she was "quite confident" about political will in the council for the two main goals: Saving lives and combating the migrant traffickers, some of whom she said are "linked to, and sometimes finance, terrorist activities."
The U.N.'s special representative for international migration told the council that about half of the people who reach Europe qualify as refugees. Peter Sutherland also praised a planned EU quota system where countries would share the refugee settlement burden, though finding the required agreement of all EU members is already a challenge. Some countries have already objected.
The EU's executive Commission was to propose the plan Wednesday as part of a strategy to help frontline countries Italy, Greece and Malta cope with thousands of migrants. France's top security official on Monday said his country supports the plan.
Mogherini said the "new agenda for migration" to be addressed Wednesday would also do more to increase search-and-rescue operations and allow for more legal pathways into Europe. Again, she did not give details.
"We know we have to tackle all aspects of this tragedy," she said, but she also argued that "dismantling traffickers ... is a way of saving lives."
The crisis centers on Libya, which has fractured into two competing governments, and parts of the proposed EU operation on shore and in territorial waters would require permission from Libyan authorities. Mogherini said she met earlier Monday with Libya's U.N. ambassador, who last week largely rejected the plan and told The Associated Press that his country had not even been consulted.
She stressed repeatedly that the migrant crisis will require an effort larger than just the EU itself. "Europe has probably for once woken up," she said. "We need the rest of the world to do its part as well."