Failed EU migration policy produces a perfect storm
One damning report follows another: Amnesty International and the British House of Lords have issued studies pointing to the European Union’s utter failure to stem the flow of refugees from Libya to Europe in recent years. Indeed, some EU policies have made the situation worse.
The situation in Libya is unlikely to improve soon but few European politicians dare tell their voters the truth: That there is no quick fix to the crisis and more long term thinking about the root causes of the problem is critical.
Leaving sinking refugees to die at sea is a ruthless tactic of deterrence that has been endorsed de facto by many European leaders but it does not work and the sooner this is admitted, the better the chance of reducing the number of casualties. In 2016, the number of drownings in the central Mediterranean totalled more than 4,500 people, compared with 3,175 in 2015. The numbers continue to rise.
The Amnesty International report argued that, instead of trying to prevent further loss of life by deploying more ships for rescue operations near Libyan territorial waters, the European Union has focused on preventing refugees and migrants from departing Libya to keep the number of arrivals down.
The bare statistics show the magnitude of the problem. Italy’s Interior Ministry recorded 170,000 arrivals in 2014, 153,800 in 2015, 181,400 last year and 73,380 in 2017, a 14% increase over the same period in 2016. Most of the migrants are from sub-Saharan Africa, with Nigeria being the most common country of origin, followed by Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Senegal and Mali; 44% of those requesting asylum were entitled to some form of protection in Italy in the first half of 2017.
Enhanced border controls with some of Europe’s neighbours, such as Turkey, have driven some groups, notably from Bangladesh, to attempt the more perilous Libyan route. The report said: “It is a measure of refugees’ and migrants’ despair and determination that tens of thousands of them continue to choose a route that, even before embarking on an extremely perilous sea crossing exposes them to violence, rape, beatings and other abuses during the crossing of the desert, and once again in Libya.”
Deaths in the desert crossing, a result of violence, exhaustion or abandonment by smugglers, go largely unaccounted for. Civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire and northern Nigeria have forced many people to flee.
The UNHCR report, “Forced Displacement in 2016,” points out that, by the end of that year, 65.6 million individuals were displaced, double that of 20 years ago. Meanwhile, conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and many African countries, such as Sudan, show little sign of ending.
Regarding the central Mediterranean, the House of Lords’ inquiry concluded that the EU naval mission’s ways of confronting people-smuggling increased the number of deaths at sea. The report, from the external affairs sub-committee, concluded that the naval operation mandate should not be renewed because it has had little effect on the flow of irregular migrants.
Operation Sophia should, however, continue its search-and-rescue work as it has been a humanitarian success but it should use non-military vessels.
Indeed, the report’s findings are not alone in pointing out that the destruction of 452 boats used in smuggling operations led to a change in the smugglers’ “business model.” They are no longer sending larger boats that can carry up to 600 people but inflatables that can pick up refugees 20km off the Libyan coast. These dinghies account for 70% of all boats leaving the Libyan shores, inevitably increasing the risk of death at sea.
This is a story of unintended consequences, as was the military operation backed by France, Britain and the United States in 2011 that began as an effort to protect the inhabitants of Benghazi who had risen against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and ended up ousting the dictator.
Neither country nor the European Union nor NATO thought through the consequences of a collapsing Libya. We are living with the consequences today, which include chaos in Libya and increased refugees in Tunisia, which has been made more fragile by the huge increase in smuggling, notably of weapons, across its southern border.
From the Mare Nostrum programme that began in late 2013, through Triton and now to Sophia, the European Union has failed to break up the smuggling networks. No European country is willing to lead the effort and NGOs have filled the gap.
The European Union recently began providing support to the Libyan Coast Guard but whether the latter can operate as a legitimate national force is doubtful. Not only are there numerous allegations that it colludes with smugglers, the way Libya and its mafias treat Africans is appalling. This has been the case for decades.
To blame rescuers for acting as a pull factor ignores the bleak reality that the number of people fleeing Africa is increasing. The push factor trumps the pull one. Until Europeans — be they xenophobes, politicians trying to bury their head in the sand or humanitarians — reach an understanding, devising a more responsible policy will be impossible.