This year should have marked a shift in European attitudes towards migration. Following a period in 2015-2016 when as many as around 220,000 refugees and other migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Europe per month, only around 18,500 made the journey between January and early August 2018. Such a sharp decline provided the European Union with an opportunity to shift its migration policy planning out of crisis mode. Alas, it has chosen not to do so.
The hysteria over migration that continues to sweep European politics seems entirely disconnected from the facts on the ground. Italy, the destination for those crossing along the central Mediterranean route, stands as a symbol of this paradox. According to the mayor of Lampedusa, an island that serves as Italy’s main migratory thoroughfare, this year has been the quietest since 2011. Yet most Italians will remember 2018 as the year that sensationalist rhetoric on migration shaped election campaigns, and that the new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, introduced startling policies that dominated the headlines for months at a time.
No doubt due to his preoccupation with migration, Salvini chose Libya as the destination of his first official trip abroad. Since the 2011 revolution that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi – the self-declared gatekeeper of Europe – Libya has become fertile ground for people smugglers. The country’s weak state structures and proximity to Italy have made it a key waypoint for refugees and other migrants from east and west Africa. Many of these people converge in Libya before attempting to cross the Mediterranean on vessels just seaworthy enough to sail within range of a European rescue ship. Due to its role as a bridge for despairing people who will attempt to cross from Africa to Europe, Libya is now a focal point for Europe’s migration policy planning.
Salvini journeyed to Tripoli in hope of building on the work of his predecessor, Marco Minniti. Arguing that the rapid growth in the “bad currency” of people smuggling in northwestern Libya stemmed from the country’s economic failures, Minniti had sought to introduce a “good currency” in its place. Despite official claims to the contrary, it seems that Minniti’s “good currency” was not a metaphor. Italy’s last-ditch anti-migration policy appears to have centred on payments to the militias involved in people smuggling across northwestern Libya – payments intended to convince them that interning and policing migrants was the more lucrative trade. This approach coincided with the EU’s similarly dubious policy of training the Libyan coastguard to conduct search and rescue missions – a policy that has become a source of embarrassment for Europe, after the UN Security Council sanctioned the commander of Zawiya’s coastguard for his involvement in people smuggling.
During a joint press conference with Ahmed Maiteeq, a member of Libya’s Presidency Council, on 25 June 2018, Salvini put forward his vision for the evolution of this policy: “in Brussels [at the 28-29 June European Council meeting], we will jointly support with Libyan authorities the setting up of reception and identification centres south of Libya, on the external border of Libya, to help Libya as well as Italy, block migration”. Maiteeq categorically rejected the plan, claiming that Libya would not allow foreign powers to operate camps on its territory. Undeterred, Salvini put forward an alarming proposal to lift the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya, which he portrayed as weakening the authorities’ – particularly the Libyan coastguard’s – ability to act.
The EU could transform an existential crisis into a rejuvenating, unifying experience
On his broader plans for Libya, Salvini lived up to his word: at the European Council meeting, Italy threatened to block all progress until the migration issue had been resolved to its satisfaction. Despite its commitment to migration policy in “line with our principles and values”, the EU stated that it would provide further support to Libya’s coastguard and explore the possibility of “regional disembarkation platforms”, which would hold and process refugees and other migrants.
In an attempt to quell Libyan discontent with the policy, the Italian authorities have since clarified that the new centres would be in Niger rather than Libya. Nonetheless, the proposal for European-sponsored migrant holding centres in Libya – along with calls from Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to station European border guards across north Africa – is a source of disquiet for many Libyans. As Libya’s security sector is merely a constellation of militias, these groups will inevitably control any holding centre in the country. Given that the militias primarily aim to maximise profit, the degrading conditions migrants endure on their journey north could worsen once they reach the centres.
Salvini’s comments in Libya and the European Council’s reaffirmed positions contribute to the decay of EU migration policy. Their renewed commitment to counterproductive tactics comes during a period that could prove to be the eye of the migration storm. To date, Italy’s policies have merely blocked the route through Libya in a highly unstable way that encourages migrants to use Morocco as their bridge to Europe. Despite the perils of the Saharan route, Europe retains its allure for young Africans, particularly refugees who view the continent as the closest place where they would feel secure.
Europe’s policy of helping the militias that pass for Libya’s authorities “rescue” and intern migrants is inherently flawed. It is unsustainable to develop state agencies such as a coastguard in a country where the government lacks both domestic legitimacy and a nationwide presence, and where armed groups operating outside the rule of law dominate the security environment. Arguably, Europe’s sponsorship of Libya’s coastguard and holding centres is as cynical as President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on building wall on the southern US border. It makes a mockery of the principles and values that purportedly shape EU migration policy.
Yet the EU could craft a sustainable migration policy that both reduces the number of people travelling to Europe and is humane in its treatment of those who make the journey. In doing so, the Union should extend the conclusions of the recent European Council meeting towards a more constructive end.
Libya is one of several states in north Africa to reject the EU’s proposals for the disembarkation platforms rehashed in the council’s conclusions. Already struggling with a host of domestic problems that they lack the resources to address, most countries in the region are reluctant to host migrants on Europe’s behalf. However, this does not mean that they are entirely detached from the issue. African governments and civil society organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the need to address the crisis. The African Union recently agreed to a Moroccan proposal on establishing the African Observatory for Migration and Development in Rabat, with the aim of coordinating a multilateral policy that would “understand, anticipate and act” on migration. If Europe is to find responsive partners in north Africa – and to ensure the support the council conclusions’ promises to transit countries is worthwhile – it will need to acknowledge the agency and concerns of countries there. Allying with initiatives such as the observatory would lead to more effective policy than dictating solutions such as holding centres.
The EU clearly recognises that living conditions in parts of Africa – not least those in which violence and political repression are common – drive many people to risk the journey to Europe. This can be seen in the eighth conclusion of the European Council meeting, which calls for the EU to enhance “the extent and equality of our cooperation with Africa”. However, as it will be many years before such an approach pays out, Europe needs to find ways to manage migration in the interim. The most effective way to do this would be to loosen the regulations making legal economic migration from outside Europe near impossible as part of efforts at enhanced cooperation with Africa. The EU also needs to create a new set of rules for processing asylum applications that will replace the Dublin Regulation.
Much of the populist backlash against migration stems from Europeans’ security fears and perceived loss of control. According to the results of ECFR’s new security scorecard, a perceived inability to control the number of migrants who enter Europe is the leading migration concern of 17 EU states. This combines with preconceptions about economic migrants from Africa to fuel hysteria over migration. By partnering with major transit countries in north Africa and developing reasonable legal avenues for economic migration, the EU can discourage Africans from taking perilous routes to Europe and gain greater control over the process – thereby allowing all parties to reap the benefits of migration in a manageable way.
Member states’ other major migration concerns are that they cannot control the type of migrants arriving in Europe and that the migration issue erodes their capacity to cooperate with other countries in areas such as security. A comprehensive, EU-wide set of rules for processing and settling asylum seekers would aid southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece, whose struggles in this sometimes undermine European unity and endanger refugees.
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said, migration and the disunity it fosters threaten to become an existential threat to Europe. Yet there is opportunity in every crisis. By using the lull in arrivals to develop a migration policy adapted to the reality on the ground in north Africa, the sensitivities of southern European countries, and the drivers of migration, the EU could transform an existential crisis into a rejuvenating, unifying experience.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.