The European Union is failing to tackle people smugglers in the Mediterranean who make big money putting desperate families on dangerous sea crossings, a damning report has found.
The House of Lords EU committee said a dedicated naval mission called Operation Sophia was "not having any meaningful impact" in disrupting the business model of people smuggling.
It commended the mission for saving thousands of lives at sea but warned that migrants and refugees would keep risking their lives unless smugglers were stopped.
Operation Sophia was set up in May 2015 with the explicit aim of shutting down people-smuggling routes in the Mediterranean, either through intelligence gathering or destroying the vessels used by criminals.
Britain has been heavily involved since last summer, with both HMS Richmond and HMS Enterprise tasked with tracking down the gangs putting people at risk.
But the committee's report – released on Friday – found that the mission "does not in any meaningful way deter the flow of migrants, disrupt the smugglers’ networks, or impede the business of people smuggling on the central Mediterranean route".
That's because the mission is based at sea and isn't tackling the criminal gangs on land, the report said. It warned that by the time boats are in the water, "the smugglers are no longer on board, and so only low level targets have been arrested".
Committee chair Lord Tugendhat, a Tory peer, said: "Migrant smuggling is a multi-billion pound operation, with hundreds of thousands of migrants travelling each year on separate routes into Europe.
"The EU naval mission in the central Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, patrols an area that’s around six times larger than Italy and this was always going to present an enormous challenge.
"A naval mission cannot disrupt the business model of people smuggling and in this sense it is failing. The smuggling networks operate from Libya, and they extend through Africa. Without support from a stable Libyan government, the operation is unable to gather the intelligence it needs or tackle the smugglers onshore."
Around 9,000 people have been rescued by Operation Sophia since it was launched last year and the report commended this. But it also warned that "search and rescue is not its core mandate".
While more than 50 smugglers have been arrested on the mission, the report found they were low-level targets and not the "key figures" within smuggling networks.
Eighty smuggling vessels have been destroyed so far but this has resulted in the "smugglers simply changing tactics and shifting from wooden boats to dinghies, which are less safe".
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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