The migration issue after Malta

February 12, 2017

No sooner had the European Union cobbled together a plan of sorts to stop the migrant flow from Libya across the Mediterranean than justifiable questions arose. A few days after the EU summit in Malta, Eugenio Ambrosi, Europe director at the UN-affiliated International Organi­sation for Migration (IOM), suggested that Europe was doing too little and even that would come too late for the thousands of desperate people who set off from the Libyan coast in search of a better life.

Europe, he said, needed to go deeper and further, be kinder and more practical all at the same time if it wanted to address the problem of migratory flows across the Mediterranean. It must provide legal channels for would-be migrants to apply for work in Europe. That would reduce the numbers of tragic deaths in rickety boats at sea, he suggested. It would not make “a cem­etery” of the Mediterranean, in the words of Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi.

Quite. Libya, however, is a knotty problem. It has become a major collection-and-dispatch hub for migrants. Even though it is a long and perilous journey, the central Mediterranean crossing has grown in popularity — 181,000 people were detected having attempted the route last year, up from 64,000 in 2011. More than 5,000 died in the process in 2016.

Libya’s main problem is that no one is properly in charge and no one entity exerts control over the whole country and its porous borders. Hence, no one can undertake to stop the people-traffick­ing industry that flourishes with impunity on its soil.

Libya needs a credible administration that is able to command national support, secure the borders and enforce the law but domestic divisions have proven quite stubborn. Diverse — and at times conflicting — regional and international interference and mediation attempts have yielded little but more confusion.

That said, even if Libya’s crisis were to be resolved, the migra­tion issue would not magically go away. It is safe to assume that war, terror, poverty and failed state policies would continue to push people to seek greener pastures in Europe.

What can be done? There are some practical ways to ameliorate the situation.

First, as the IOM official suggests, viable channels for legal migration could and should be opened and kept open. Every country has the right to defend its territory but a modicum of flexibility is better than manning a fortress. Innumerable studies have shown that Europe, which has an ageing population, will not be the poorer for it. Portraying migration as an existential threat to European lives, livelihoods and culture might be electorally expedient but it is cynical politicking at best.

Second, the right to safe harbour for oppressed individuals and minorities must be recognised and respected. Screening appli­cants by religious or ethnic affiliation is discriminatory and dangerous.

Third, the international community should provide practical and dependable help to countries that host the most refugees — Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

That would be a good start.