Everyday, the men and women of the European Union Naval Force do what they can to protect shipping from the threat of pirates around the Horn of Africa. Over the last five years the EU Naval Force has captured and detained countless Somali pirates. But to what end?

In the face of international pressure, the EU recognized piracy as a new element of organized crime and terrorist activity in 2008. Particular focus has been put on the seas surrounding the Horn of Africa and the Mozambique Channel, as well as areas off the coast of India. Operation Atalanta was launched as an answer to the increased number of criminal assaults on community fishing boats and merchant and passenger vessels in international waters. As the world economy relies on the sea for 90 percent of trade, it is naturally a top priority of the EU, along with the rest of the international community, to protect the seas and ensure free passage of cargo.

The operation took special focus on Somalia because of its lack of government and poor legal system. Somalia has been the textbook definition of a failed state ever since lapsing into a clan-based civil war in 1991 and today it is one of the most pirate dense counties in the world. The multinational naval force of vessels working under Operation Atalanta has helped the World Food Programme (WFP) to deliver food aid to displaced persons in Somalia. It has also protected vulnerable shipping explorations off the Somali coast and has significantly reduced the number of successful pirate-attacks and hijackings. This is all very positive but a rather big problem remains; very few captured pirates face any criminal charges. For example, between March and April 2010, EU naval forces captured 275 alleged pirates, but only forty faced prosecution. They are simply released without having to face any justice.

The Horn of Africa. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The reason for this is quite remarkable; the countries capturing these pirates do not want to be bombarded by claims of asylum from those they arrest, who would ask not to be deported to Somalia, because it is a country at war. The lack of functioning government in Somalia has resulted in the pirates facing very little opposition from the Somali police or military. The lack of possibilities and resources to prosecute pirates in Somalia is indeed a big problem, not only for Somalia but also for those affected by Somali pirates. For this reason the EU, and others, have taken care of the cost of transporting witnesses, training police and prosecutors as well as upgrading prisons and courts in Somalia. By investing in the Somali government and legal system, these countries hope to avoid prosecuting the pirates on European soil and therefore avoiding the risk of asylum claims.

Until the Somali government is able to ensure better rule of law, the asylum issue will continue to put the EU in a tricky position. On the one hand, is it desirable to give asylum to violent criminals? On the other, should that really make a difference? Is the fear of asylum a valid reason for the EU not to fulfill its legal duties?

However, this may be less of an issue than is previously thought. While the EU rarely deports refugees to Somalia because the situation in the country is dangerous to many, there is little reason to believe that the pirates would be in danger if expelled, as they do not belong to a group subject to persecution. Furthermore, if the Somali state expresses diplomatic assurances that the authorities will not resort to unlawful treatment of the pirates upon return, then this would make it easier for the EU to deny asylum.

For now, many will likely continue to resort to pirating. The Somali government is non-functioning, poverty is widespread and the Somali law is weak and poorly implemented. Piracy is, for some, the best way to make good money, which can be used to finance passage to Europe in the hope of a better life. Even if they are captured and prosecuted it is very difficult to “punish” pirates since the punishment is often better than the lives the pirates are currently living; European jails are considered safe, and have food and running water. Thus, this issue will likely persist until Somalia comes further on its path toward a better functioning state.


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