BRUSSELS — The European Union is seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution within days to let its members hunt down human traffickers in the Mediterranean and destroy their boats, a senior EU official said Tuesday.
EU foreign ministers hope to have a U.N. resolution by their May 18 meeting "to ensure that we can have coercive action toward the smugglers" who have helped bring more than 10,000 migrants to European shores in unseaworthy boats in recent weeks, said the official, who has close knowledge of the operation but is not permitted to speak publicly about it.
More than 170,000 illegal border crossings were recorded through the Mediterranean last year, mostly Syrians and Eritreans leaving via Libya, whose collapse has allowed criminal gangs and terrorists to flourish. Around 1,700 migrants are feared to have died in recent weeks even before the high season for sea migration begins in June.
The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, says the aim is to "destroy the business model" of the traffickers by wrecking the boats they use to smuggle migrants. European navies currently can only destroy boats involved in trafficking if they have no national flag or if the nation whose flag they bear gives permission for their destruction. A U.N. resolution would broaden that restriction to allow for more boats being destroyed.
Some European 10 countries have signaled an interest in taking part in the operation, the official said. Britain, France, Poland and Spain are likely to provide ships or planes.
The illicit migrant trade across the Mediterranean is now worth up to $323 million a year in Libya alone and its resources are being funneled into terrorist groups including the Islamic State group, according to a report Tuesday by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a network of law enforcement and development groups, and the Rhipto analysis center in Norway.
Despite this booming trade, the EU's plan has proved controversial, with both Russia and Libya — the jumping-off point for many migrants fleeing conflict and poverty for better lives in Europe — expressing concerns about the plan.
With a U.N. resolution in hand, the EU ministers could give formal approval for the operation to go ahead and it would probably be announced by EU leaders at a Brussels summit in late June. No European troops would set foot on Libyan soil, the official said.
Around 185,000 asylum-seekers were granted protection status in the EU last year — a 50 percent rise over 2013, according to new figures released Tuesday by the EU's statistical agency.
More than one in three was Syrian — a total of 68,400 people fleeing the conflict there — while Eritreans and Afghans were also accepted in large numbers. Almost two-thirds of those granted protection in the EU were registered in just four of its 28 members; Germany, Sweden, France and Italy.
Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.