The continuing flow of migrants across the Mediterranean

Sunday 04/12/2016

This year will end with a dreadful record: More migrants will have reached Italy from Libya by boat than ever before. With a few weeks left in 2016, Italy’s Interior Ministry announced that more than 171,000 uninvited migrants reached the country’s shores this year. Until 2016, the highest number was 170,100, which was reached in 2014. At least 4,663 would-be migrants have drowned so far this year, nearly 1,000 more than during the same period last year.
The frustration of it all is that the flow towards Italy via the Mediterranean seems likely to continue. Human trafficking remains a lucrative business. According to a confidential report by the commander of an EU military task force in the Mediterranean, Libya’s coastal cities are making up to $344.9 million each year from people smuggling.
This particular manifestation, which thrives out of Libya, is essentially unrestrained and seemingly impossible to bring in check. The chaos that continues in Libya means its multiple administrations are unable to construct and enforce a workable action plan. Libya’s multiple governments, weakened and divided by domestic strife, are powerless to stem the flow of would-be migrants trickling across the Sahara.
It is worth noting the UN refugee agency’s categorisation of the people who use the Libyan route to Europe. They are largely from sub-Saharan Africa, mostly from Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, Mali and Gambia, it said, which means they are people who will eventually be judged by Europe to be economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing conflict.
EU attempts to restrict illegal migration across the Sahara have not worked and may not work as long as poverty, conflict and terrorist activity continue. A particular example is the displacement of hundreds of thousands in Nigeria because of the Boko Haram threat.
Smugglers are adjusting to the European Union’s military interdic­tion approach. They now send the migrants alone on perilous journeys across the sea. Carlotta Sami, a Rome-based spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, has said the vessels mostly collapse after travelling just a few kilometres “because they are of such a poor quality”. The smugglers know that once their dilapidated dinghies are en route, the migrants have only to radio for help and interna­tional rescuers will speed to their aid.
The first conclusion to make about the current situation is that the European Union’s interdiction approach may not be the way to put smugglers out of business. A recent report by the Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis project said “smuggling is driven, rather than broken, by EU policy”. What is needed, with interdiction of illegal migration, is the selective expansion of the legal routes of entry and resettlement in Europe for would-be migrants. The type of “visa facilitation agreement” considered by the European Union for Tunisia might be the way to go.
The second conclusion is that migration from sub-Saharan Africa will require tackling the wider issues to do with development and security on the African continent; and the third and more immediate one: A great deal rides on stabilising Libya.
Until solutions are found, jihadists and drug traffickers will continue to exploit Libya’s power vacuum, thereby endangering North Africa’s stability. What goes in or out of its thumbnail-shaped coast affects the rest of the land.