The European Union has begun operation to stem migrant smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea, with its naval mission intercepting boats and arresting criminals in international waters between Italy and Libya.
The EU is facing the biggest influx of migrants and refugees since the end of World War II.
The bulk of migrants this year have arrived in Greece, while criminal networks have exploited a power vacuum in war-torn Libya to smuggle people across the sea to Italy.
The naval mission was launched in June, but had so far been limited to surveillance and rescue activities, with an ultimate view to dismantling the business model of migrant smugglers and curbing loss of life at sea.
Formally known as EUNAVFOR Med, the operation has been codenamed ‘’Sophia’’, after a baby girl born to a Somali migrant during one of the rescue operations.
A statement from the mission’s operational headquarters in Rome, said that from Wednesday, crews will "conduct boarding, search, seizure and diversion, on the high seas, of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking".
But, the Italian Refugee Council has expressed concern that the crackdown could harm migrants.
"Experience has, unfortunately, taught us that when deterrent actions are put into effect, but no alternative possibilities are created, the journeys of refugees become even more desperate," the mission spokesman, Christopher Hein, said.