After Warsaw: A 3-point plan to manage migration through Libya

Adding NATO to Operation Sophia is unlikely to substantially change the picture – though it won’t hurt. Instead, in the coming months the EU should focus on three policy baskets.

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At last week’s summit, NATO approved Operation Sea Guardian (points 91-93 here) which will complement and support Operation Sophia, an existing EU naval intervention, in its mission to tackle people smugglers and implement the UN arms embargo on Libya. But apart from providing intelligence and surveillance resources, it is not clear what NATO’s contribution will be.

It is not surprising that the Warsaw Summit devoted attention to naval operations to tackle migration across the Central Mediterranean. This issue is particularly high on the agenda of some EU member states, particularly Italy, which have pressed in recent months for action from the EU and NATO.

However, it is not clear that the operation will have any positive results. The EU wants NATO’s help to boost Operation Sophia, which has failed to curb migrant deaths in the Mediterranean or to reduce flows into Europe. At the same time, the EU is pushing for unrealistic “readmission agreements” with African countries, in the hope of boosting the number of forced returns of unauthorised migrants from Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa. Ultimately, the EU is asking NATO to cooperate on policies that are unlikely to have a big impact.

Yet an alternative plan is possible, provided European governments make the effort to understand the real drivers of the crisis.

Flows through Libya to Italy did not increase much in the first six months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, but casualties have gone up dramatically. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted almost 3,000 casualties in the Mediterranean since 1 January, almost double the figure for last year.

The Central Mediterranean route was the focus of the initial outcry over the “refugee crisis” in April last year, after almost 800 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya. The public response initially led to an emphasis on “saving lives”, but EU policy soon settled on a goal more in tune with the prevailing anti-immigration mood of public opinion in almost all the 28 member states: stopping migrants from making the journey in the first place.

A two-part plan

In the last year, the EU has implemented two major policies to manage migration through Libya. Downstream in the Mediterranean, it tasked Operation Sophia with intercepting and destroying the vessels of migrant smugglers. This operation does not have “saving lives” as a stated priority, but vessels from EU countries often end up doing this on a daily basis, though they are not fully equipped for the task.

Upstream in Africa – the starting point for many migrants and refugees who come to Libya and then on to Italy – the EU’s policy was summed up in 7 June Commission statement. It focused on creating a system of sticks and carrots to push African countries to sign “readmission agreements” (i.e. agreements to accept forced returns of their own citizens and third-country nationals) either with the EU or – more realistically – with EU member states.

Neither policy can really be called a recipe for success, no matter what one’s priorities are. The Framework Partnership with African countries envisaged by the Commission builds on the same principle of “conditionality” that has failed in the European Neighbourhood Policy: the EU expects a change of policy by a third country in exchange for a few hundred million euros (at most). In order to really reduce the flows, the EU would have to sign several agreements, as migrants from more than 50 countries use this route. Each agreement takes years to negotiate, and is costly to implement.

If Operation Sophia is judged by the number of casualties in the Mediterranean, it has clearly failed. Indeed, it is a failure even if it is judged by its ability to stop migrant boats setting off from Libya. True, the operation was meant to have three phases, of which the last and most important was to be tackling smugglers in Libyan territorial waters and onshore. The EU sought permission from the Libyan unity government formed in January of this year to implement this final part of the plan, but, predictably, the Libyans have no appetite for inviting foreign troops into their territory. The EU recently decided to offer to train the Libyan coastguard – a more realistic goal – but this will take time to implement, as participants in the programme need to be vetted.

Even with NATO support, it is not clear how much Operation Sophia can do without a reasonable degree of cooperation and co-ownership from the Libyan side. More importantly, joint naval operations in the Mediterranean can have an impact on the number of casualties, if done properly, but are unlikely to reduce flows (which is the EU’s overall goal) as this depends mostly on what happens upstream. Once migrants and refugees leave their countries of origin, they can either stay in Libya or move to Europe. Most migrants who travel to Libya stay there, and officials from international organisations privately acknowledge there are currently around 700,000 foreigners in the country. But a fraction of those who arrive in Libya will still try to get to Europe: if 2014 and 2015 are of any indication, between 150,000 and 200,000 people should be expected – and in fact about half that figure have travelled to Italy from Libya so far in 2016.

An alternative policy

Ultimately, the Central Mediterranean route is here to stay – unless you think that Libya will soon be “fixed” and get back to being a reliable partner in reducing flows to Europe, and a more attractive final destination for migrants. In June 2013, Altai Consulting estimated that there were 1.7 million migrants in the country. While the rapid growth of the Balkan route into Europe in 2015 was due mostly to the Syrian civil war, migration through Libya is part of a longstanding flow from Africa to Europe. The numbers using the route have gone up and the price of the crossing has gone down, while an increasing number of young Libyans have got involved in the business of people smuggling, often taking out loans to buy trucks to carry people to safe-houses, where they are locked up before the crossing.

The challenge for the EU is to find short-term fixes for the emergency, while at the same time working on long-term policy solutions. Realistically, the EU should shift its goalposts, aiming to manage flows rather than cut them drastically, while enhancing its ability to save lives. Creating more legal channels of migration could offer a real incentive for African countries to crack down on the illegal channels – parallel to the visa liberalisation offered elsewhere.

Adding NATO to Operation Sophia is unlikely to substantially change the picture – though it won’t hurt. Instead, in the coming months the EU should focus on three policy baskets.

#1 Sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with countries from both sides of the Mediterranean to manage the crisis at sea and on the coasts

This would directly involve Libya, Italy, Malta, Tunisia, and, where possible, Egypt. The EU would be a signatory to the agreement, but co-ownership from the southern shore of the Mediterranean should be a priority. This MoU would include:

  • Joint patrolling missions, which in the past were the most effective tool in addressing flows from North Africa;
  • Support for Libyan efforts to improve governance of the maritime security sector;
  • Agreements to process migrants under the Geneva Convention (the 1951 Convention on Refugees);
  • Support Libya to improve the conditions and treatment of migrants who are rescued in its territory.

#2 Launch a CSDP mission to manage the crisis in Libya and on Libya’s borders

An EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission could offer assistance to the Libyans (both the central government and local authorities) to rebuild the judiciary; train police forces; and help to improve the governance of the security sector while strengthening accountability.

Importantly, this EU mission should be tasked not just with technical capacity-building for border control, but should also offer political assistance across three fields:

  • Developing a decentralised border control system with local communities, while at the same time building up central oversight and accountability;
  • Mediating between the central government and local communities;
  • Helping Libyan economic institutions and the Government of National Accord (GNA) to tackle the economic drivers of smuggling, particularly the subsidy system. This encourages the smuggling of subsidised goods such as petrol, which is the first link in a chain that ultimately involves the smuggling of people, arms, and drugs.

#3 Make a multilateral agreement with countries of transit and/or origin for migrants south of Libya

The EU should work on a multilateral memorandum of understanding with Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali and other relevant Sahel countries, with the participation of the IOM and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

This agreement should focus on five points:

  • Using the EU Trust Fund for Africa to boost political and economic integration between West Africa, the Sahel, and the Maghreb. Migration flows have traditionally been most important between countries of ECOWAS (the economic cooperation organisation for West Africa) and Maghreb countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and especially Libya. The EU should use its Trust Fund to promote projects that allow legal migration within this zone.
  • The EU must allow for some legal circular migration from this area (West Africa and the Sahel) if it wants genuine buy-in from African countries to a crackdown on illegal migration. While it is politically unthinkable to offer visa liberalisation as in other migration agreements, the EU should put on the table a certain number of circular migration work permits that allow Africans to come to Europe for a few months every year for low-skilled jobs in agriculture and other sectors.
  • The EU should work to boost the IOM’s capacity to carry out voluntary assisted returns from transit countries in Africa for those migrants who do not qualify for circular migration to the EU, and have not found a job in the projects funded by the Trust Fund. It is worth assessing whether resources from the Trust Fund can be allocated as incentives for voluntary returns, and to local communities who accept an EU commitment to boost the local economy in exchange for cutting migration.
  • As part of this framework, the EU should work with Niger, Algeria, Mali, and other countries to crack down on illegal migration through more effective border controls and readmission agreements. But this will only work if there are legal channels for intra-African migration, and to allow limited numbers to enter the EU.
  • Not all flows through Libya are economic migrants – some are refugees from West Africa and the Horn of Africa. The EU should ensure that these refugees receive adequate protection in neighbouring countries, both by pushing for legislation and supporting initiatives, and through actions similar to the London summit on Syria’s neighbours, which created a multi-billion dollar fund for countries neighbouring Syria to support their assistance to refugees

Some of these measures may seem a long shot. Yet the kind of agreements proposed by the EU Commission in June, under pressure from some member states, are unlikely to be signed any time soon, and it’s unclear how effectively they could be implemented. Even with NATO support, Operation Sophia is unlikely to have an impact on the business model of people smugglers. A three-pronged policy upstream, downstream and in Libya is more realistic, provided it limits itself to managing the flows humanely rather than chasing the unrealistic goal of cutting down numbers in the short term.

The author owes special thanks to Mohammed Farhat, Chargé d’Affairs of the Libyan mission to the EU. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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