LUXEMBOURG — The European Union launched a naval operation Monday to try to stop human-traffickers from bringing migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe in unseaworthy boats, a lucrative and at times deadly practice.
More than 100,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year, with some 2,000 dead or missing during the perilous quest to reach the continent. Dozens of boats set off from lawless Libya each week, with Italy and Greece bearing the brunt of the surge.
The naval operation, which was officially launched by EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, will operate in international waters and airspace until the EU can secure a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing its effort and permission from Libyan officials to enter their territory.
"We will start implementing the first phase of the operation in the coming days. This covers information-gathering and patrolling on the high seas to support the detection and monitoring of smuggling networks," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
"The targets are not the migrants. The targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths," she told reporters.
The EU aims to "dismantle the business model" of the traffickers by destroying their boats, she said. But the U.N. has been slow to endorse the operation amid criticism from refugee groups that the move will only deprive migrants fleeing poverty and conflict of a major way to escape, rather than address the roots of the problem.
Libya's divided factions have also been reluctant to approve any operation in its waters or on land, which means that the transition to more robust phases of the naval mission could take months.
A senior EU diplomatic official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide operational details, said five naval units led by Italian light aircraft carrier Cavour will be joined by two submarines, three maritime surveillance planes, two drones and two helicopters for the operation.
They will be involved in rescue work if needed. Politically sensitive actions such as boarding or destroying smuggling boats could come in later phases of the operation.
The first phase aims to gather intelligence on who the traffickers are, how they operate, and where the money goes.
Many of the migrants have told their rescuers that the smugglers beat them or threaten them with death if they balk at boarding the rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.
Italy expressed satisfaction it was getting assistance in its efforts to eradicate the smuggling. Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti noted that the military mission against traffickers of human beings was "until today what we were doing alone."
But the politically thorny issue remains of how much responsibility EU countries bear for migrants rescued at sea and brought to Italian ports. Asylum rules dictate that those seeking refugee status remain in the country where they set foot, but Italy counters that most of the asylum-seekers want to go to northern Europe, where relatives await them.
Last year, 170,000 rescued migrants were brought to Italy, and some 60,000 have arrived on rescue boats so far this year. Thousands have been rescued in the last few days alone in Italy and Greece.
With mixed success, Rome has been arguing that the responsibility of sheltering these people should be divvied up among EU countries.
Frances D'Emilio contributed from Rome; Elena Becatoros contributed from Athens.