Addressing the root causes of illegal migration is key
Illegal migration will be on the agenda of forthcoming meetings of the world’s major powers. The Group of Seven will discuss it in late May in Sicily, as will the Group of 20 in July in Hamburg.
The term has now come to refer chiefly to the ceaseless flow of migrants headed for Europe through Libya.
The situation continues its tragic relentless course while the Mediterranean becomes a vast unmarked grave for thousands. Wave after wave of people — many of them economic migrants — continue to find a channel through lawless Libya’s 1,100-mile coastline.
They dream of a prosperous and peaceful life happily remade in Europe but the majority of the unaccompanied minors, young men and women and vulnerable families do not get to Europe. Armed gangs and smugglers often detain hapless travellers in Libya, all the better to enslave them and extort money from them or their families.
When and if the migrants do manage to procure an expensive passage on inadequate dinghies, they are more likely to die at sea than reach Italy and successfully claim asylum.
By the third week of April, the UN refugee agency had recorded more than 1,000 people dead or feared drowned this year in the Mediterranean, en route from Libya to Italy. It is a grim record, achieved more than a month earlier than in 2016. Last year, this tragic benchmark was not reached until the end of May.
The migration business has become a sunshine sector for Libya, albeit one that is shamefully stained with blood. Fifteen months after the Aegean passage closed as a result of the European Union’s deal with Turkey, Libya has become the premier back route to Europe. Nothing suggests that Libya will lose its dreadful lure anytime soon. It has multiple governments and militias and so effectively offers an unpoliced open border.
The courses of action offered until now have focused on saving migrants from drowning and on securing Europe’s borders but neither of these addresses the core of the problem, that is to say food insecurity, conflict and poor governance in the countries these people are fleeing.
The flood of migrants through Libya is likely to continue with famine looming in South Sudan and Yemen and conflicts in parts of the Middle East and North Africa region. As a new UN study puts it, the number of people fleeing a country increases by 1.9% for each percentage point increase in food insecurity and refugee outflows increase 0.4% for each additional year of war in a country.
Add to that the desperation of sub-Saharan Africans fleeing their governments’ draconian diktats and trying to escape armed conflict and it is clear that, especially in good weather, the Libyan back route will continue to be tragically popular.
It is also a fact, however, that Europe is neither an island nor a viable fortress. The North African shore is not separate from the rest of the continent nor can it operate as a drawbridge for fortress Europe.
The international community cannot escape the need to help Africa, the Middle East and North Africa improve conditions at home, offer better prospects and the chance of peace there. That would go beyond short-term expediency.