Migrant crisis: Europe gears up to seize smugglers

A view of the German navy frigate ship Werra patrolling in front of Libya coast Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption EU naval vessels will seize trafficking vessels in international waters off the Libyan coast

Opposite an orthopaedic centre, a pizzeria and a shop which sells moulded plaster fittings, stands the Centocelle airbase.

This base in the eastern suburbs of Rome is now the command centre of the EU's anti-smuggling mission in the Mediterranean.

The mission is known as Operation Sophia, named after a child born on a German rescue ship. Its operations began on 22nd June 2015.

For the past three months, Italian Rear Adm Enrico Credendino has co-ordinated the surveillance of routes used by smugglers to take migrants and refugees by boat from Libya towards Italy and Malta.

So far this year, more than 130,000 migrants and refugees have made it to Europe in this way. More than 2,700 have drowned - making this the most dangerous migrant journey in the world.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption The crossing from Libya to Italy is the most dangerous migrant journey in the world

The surveillance phase of the EU's mission now gives way to what's described as a second, more active phase: the disruption of the smugglers' journeys.

"We'll be able to board, search, seize vessels in international waters, [and] suspected smugglers and traffickers apprehended will be transferred to the Italian judicial authorities," the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini explained in September.

Rear Adm Credendino, the mission commander, will have six EU warships at his disposal: an Italian flagship, two German ships, one French and one Spanish ship and a frigate from the UK - HMS Richmond.

EU migrant boat seizures 'won't stop crime gangs'

Migrant crisis in graphics

What is next route for migrants?

Image copyright AP
Image caption The EU operation is being dubbed "Sophia" after a baby born to a rescued Somali woman on a German frigate in August
Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption The EU hopes eventually to operate inside Libyan territorial waters

The limits of the EU's mission are obvious. Its warships will have to stick to international waters - meaning that they will have to stay 12 nautical miles away from the Libyan coast.

It's not immediately clear whether or not six warships, together with support helicopters and drones, will make a practical difference to the number of journeys begun by smugglers and migrants.

On some days, around 20 migrant ships set sail from the Libyan coast.

The EU eventually hopes to move to a third, more aggressive phase of its operation - by operating within Libya's own territorial waters. But this will only be possible with the approval of either the UN Security Council or Libya itself.

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption The EU's anti-smuggling mission has finished its surveillance phase