A few days after the first anniversary of the tragic shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa, Italy that killed more than 360 migrants, the Council of the European Union, whose rotating presidency is currently held by Italy, launched an operation to gather detailed information on illegal immigration networks across the EU.
The operation, which is scheduled to run until October 26, has been dubbed "Mos Maiorum," which is Latin for "the way of the elders." Information about the program was first revealed by Statewatch, a non-profit organization that monitors civil liberties in the EU, when the group published a letter sent to member countries by the president of the Council of the EU.
Statewatch director Tony Bunyan told VICE News that publishing the letter, which was obtained through anonymous sources, was important for government transparency across Europe. "In previous such operations, thousands of people have been 'detained' or 'apprehended' and no information is ever provided on what happens to them," Bunyan said.
The letter obtained by Statewatch is dated July 10, 2014, and it compares Mos Maiorum to similar missions that occured previously. The goal is reportedly to apprehend people who are migrating illegally and use them to obtain information about smuggling networks. Relatively little is known about the criminal groups that exploit migrants, and the EU is apparently seeking details about their modes of operation and infrastructure.
Mos Maiorum is reportedly being handled by the Italian interior ministry with support from Frontex, the European border patrol agency. The letter seeks participation from other EU countries, but Bunyan said it remains unclear which nations have volunteered to join.
The operation targets countries within the Schengen Area, an area comprising 26 European nations that have abolished passport controls at their common borders, allowing them to function as a single country for international travel purposes. Gipsy Beley, a spokeswoman in charge of European questions at La Cimade, a French organization that provides support to immigrants, told VICE News that many details about Mos Maiorum remain vague.
"The involvement of member states in this kind of operation is unclear," Beley said. "Spain announced its participation but, concretely, we don't know what that implies. Are they going to make human resources available? Is there going to be reinforced control in strategic areas? What resources are going to be mobilized? It's somewhat opaque."
A spokesperson for France's interior ministry refused to confirm or deny the country's participation in the operation. The Italian interior ministry did not respond to questions sent by VICE News. Reached by telephone, a Frontex spokesperson directed us to a statement published on the EU agency's website.
"The authority coordinating the [Mos Maiorum] operation is the Italian interior ministry," the statement said. "Frontex would like to stress that it did not instigate the project, nor participate in its implementation."
The agency also stated that it is only supporting the Italians by providing access to immigration statistics and databases, and said Mos Maiorum is more of a cross-European police operation than a border patrol one.
The Council of the EU's Justice and Home Affairs division would seemingly oversee such a mission, but Beley said she has studied the agency's current agenda, and Mos Maiorum is not mentioned once. The French advocacy group was unable to obtain additional details about the operation from European parliamentarians.
This is not the first time Europe has attempted to gather intelligence about migrants and smuggling networks. The document obtained by Statewatch highlights the connection to pervious operations, such as "Aerodromos," a Greek effort from May 2014 that tracked migrants across 39 European airports.
The letter obtained by Statewatch said the results of Mos Maiorum will be presented to a European commission on December 11, 2014.
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