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Can Military Exercises Influence Illegal Migration?

Can Military Exercises Influence Illegal Migration?

The U.S. military conducts hundreds of exercises across the globe every year, designed to build trust, encourage cooperation, ensure the interoperability of systems and tactics, and prepare for actual operations – either conflict or humanitarian aid and disaster relief. One of the benefits of conducting large, multi-lateral exercises is that countries that aren’t in agreement in certain policy areas are able to come together to support common policy objectives.

Exercise Phoenix Express, one of three regional exercises conducted annually by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, recently kicked off at La Goulette naval base in Tunis (known in Arabic as Halq al-Wadi). The start of the exercise, unfortunately, coincided with the loss of approximately 50 migrants being trafficked off Tunisia’s coast. Illegal mass migration is a continuing problem with people from Africa and Southwest Asia travelling to Europe via historic trade and migration routes out of Africa.

After the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, the resulting power vacuum made Libya an obvious choice to serve as the southern hub of illegal migrant trafficking. Ungoverned territory invites illegal behavior, and Libya is no exception. By 2015, the trafficking had become so prolific, and the loss of life of migrants at sea, travelling in unsafe and overcrowded boats, so great that the European Union was compelled to act. Operation Sofia became one element of a broad approach to the migration issue. By the time the operation began, the Italian Navy had already exhausted itself saving the lives of distressed migrants. In 2017, the European Union extended Operation Sofia’s mission by adding requirements to train the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy and enforce a UN mandated arms embargo in the seas off Libya. The effort to train Libyan maritime forces has been largely unsuccessful and in March 2020 was finally abandoned.

Operation Sofia was stood up quickly and had an immediate positive impact because the EU naval forces had exercised and trained together for decades. Exercise Phoenix Express is designed to bring the same level of readiness and effectiveness to countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. Thirteen nations, including Morocco, Tunisia, and Spain are participating in the exercise. There are numerous recent reports highlighting Spanish concerns regarding Moroccans leaving Morocco proper and pouring into Sebta – a Spanish controlled city in northern Morocco and an occasional flashpoint between the two nations.

With Morocco and Spain at odds over the migration into Sebta, it would seem an unlikely time for the two nations to participate in a multi-lateral maritime exercise together: however, nations with policy disagreements exercise together routinely. There are two primary reasons as to why this is common practice. The first is that naval forces, by their nature, can be as visible or invisible as they choose, so exercises at sea don’t necessarily need to garner a great deal of public attention if that intention isn’t desired. Secondly, because maritime exercises typically hone skills that most mariners commonly agree need to be sharpened, participation is less a matter of policy differences and more a matter of necessity. Activities such as keeping the sea lanes open and safe, conducting safety of life at sea (SOLAS) missions, either as an exercise or actually saving people, and maneuvering together at sea in a coordinated fashion are all activities that nearly every mariner covets.

Related: JD Gordon Speaking On The Role Of The UN And The Illegal Immigration

Maintaining the safety of the seas is expensive, time consuming, and challenges the readiness levels of naval forces. Once Operation Sofia narrowed its mission to simply enforcing the UN mandated arms embargo, a resurgence in illegal migrant trafficking became inevitable. Human nature drives migration, and the darkest aspects of human nature ensure that illegal human trafficking is a process driven by criminal activity and without regard to the safety and health of the migrants. Exercise Phoenix Express will help ensure that the nations that share the boundaries of the Mediterranean can keep the sea lanes safe and open, prevent illicit travel through the seas, and provide the tools to address the complex problem of illegal migration that is so dangerous for the migrants. Given the potential positive aspects of the exercise, support for its success is important to ensuring more migrants, many of whom are women and children don’t become victims in the future. Read More by the Author

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Newslooks.com

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