With more than 700 deaths reported over three days last week, and with a confirmed 800,000 more migrants waiting in Libya to attempt the crossing into Europe, it is becoming increasingly clear that Italy could become the new Greece in the global refugee crisis, and that the central Mediterranean could become the new Aegean.
The dirty deal cut between the European Union and Turkey this spring seems to be working: It’s effectively shut down the eastern Mediterranean route to Europe. But it has also pushed those attempting to reach the continent onto the arguably more dangerous central Mediterranean route, which claimed thousands of lives last summer. Now we’re seeing the consequences.
It’s clear that this crisis will not be resolved in Libya. The country may be ground zero for migration from North Africa to southern Europe—the result of a power vacuum left by Western powers after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011—but coming up with a solution that involves this troubled country will be difficult, to put it mildly. Libya is a failed state. Or rather, it is a jigsaw of four ethnic groups (Arab, Berber, Tuareg, and Toubou) and several dozen Ashraf tribes with no serious central authority to speak of. While a unity government and a draft constitution are in place, the former effectively controls only parts of Tripoli, while the latter is littered with both procedural deficiencies and substantive flaws.
Libya is also a security nightmare. The Islamic State controls over 150 miles of the coast around the city of Sirte, while dozens of militias vie for supremacy in localized, low-intensity conflicts throughout the country. The increasing military involvement of both the United States and its European allies in Libya is testimony to the concern elicited by the Islamic State’s presence. Were this not enough, Libya has a terrible record when it comes to its treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. The country never signed up to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol; it is host to detention centers where migrants survive in atrocious conditions; and it has signed up to appalling migration deals with Italy under Silvio Berlusconi. Multiple reports talk of the regular abuses, which include abysmal sanitary conditions, beatings, torture, hard labor, and even murder, which migrants have suffered in the country.
Up until recently, European officials appeared to be discussing plans to strike a deal with Libya similar to the one cut with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in Turkey. Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, for example, repeatedly claimed that what Europe needed was a migration compact with Libya along the lines of the one Brussels signed with Ankara in March. But such a deal, for the time being at least, is hardly a likely prospect. The deal with Turkey rested on the assumption that, with the right incentives in place, Ankara could exercise a baseline level of control over its borders. Brussels should not worry about Libya’s willingness to fulfill the key provisions of a similar migration compact. What Europeans should be concerned about, rather, is that the Libyan state—with its malfunctioning government, which lacks a bare minimum of administrative capacity—has no ability to fulfill them.
In the long run, Libya and Europe need to seek a comprehensive solution to this migration crisis. But with the high season for smuggling and trafficking across the Mediterranean almost upon us, an interim solution is critical.
Libya, which sits 280 miles from the southernmost point of mainland Italy, is the primary launching point for those seeking to cross from Africa to Europe. But it remains only one variable within the broader migration equation. An interim solution for the current crisis needs a broader focus and should involve three geographic areas: Libya, the countries sharing land borders with Libya, and the Mediterranean Sea itself.
In Libya, EU governments should pressure the unity government to immediately sign up to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. These would provide a firm legal framework within which all stakeholders would have to operate. Signing them would make it clear that Libya is ready to respect the rights of migrants under international law. And, crucially, it would mandate Libya to respect refugees’ right, in particular, to non-refoulement—that is, to not be returned to countries where they risk physical harm or abuse. Secondly and where the security situation allows, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should be provided with all necessary means to massively scale up their presence in the country. By doing so, they would be able to become crucial representatives for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.
Finally—and with the explicit permission of the unity government—the European Union should start patrolling Libyan territorial waters, while international humanitarian organizations must take over the management of Libyan detention centers where migrants are held. Because Libyan authorities do not exercise any meaningful control over the coastline and because they lack the resources to adequately administer the detention centers they are supposedly managing, these measures would only technically—but not substantively—infringe upon the central government’s sovereignty.
Europe must also seek to form partnerships with Libya’s neighbors—a strategy it appears to be beginning to pursue. Countries sharing land borders with Libya have a significant comparative advantage over Tripoli when it comes to being candidates for partnerships: They have (relatively) stable governments. Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia face tremendous challenges in a variety of policy areas, yet they have the bare minimum of what it takes to resolve those challenges: established state structures.
These countries are often the countries of origin or earlier transit for the sub-Saharan migrants who converge on Libya as a springboard to Europe. Crucially, the European Union has a well-established relationship with all these governments through the second revision of the Cotonou Agreement between the European Union and African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries. More specifically, the Khartoum Process for East Africa, the Rabat Process for West Africa, and the EU strategy for the Sahel provide regional frameworks within which Europe and its partner countries can address migration issues. These regular and structured dialogues between European and African governments provide a system of financial and diplomatic rewards for African countries that proactively engage with migration issues. In particular, they’ve resulted in concrete projects that aim to discourage irregular migration by establishing readmission agreements while providing legal avenues for those trying to get to Europe, such as temporary migration plans.
It is high time for Brussels to further increase cooperation by providing additional resources to address migration issues: Europe must enable its African partners to set up projects that contribute to creating employment opportunities, ensuring food and nutrition security, improving migration management, and promoting conflict prevention. The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa should substantially be boosted for this purpose.
Europe appears to be taking steps to make migration control a cornerstone of its relationship with its African neighbors. Ad hoc migration compacts are in the works with selected origin and transit countries, including Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, and proposals are being made to launch a comprehensive €62 billion investment plan to tackle the long-term root causes of economic migration. The EU has renewed its focus on re-admissions to these countries, prioritizing speedy returns for those whose asylum claims are rejected over establishing formal readmission agreements, which is a sign of Europe’s determination to push this through—though also a warning of the potential dodginess of the various deals in the making.
Lastly, Brussels must do its homework where it is most able to bring about change: in the Mediterranean Sea and along Europe’s southern coast. The EU’s naval Operation Sophia in the south-central Mediterranean is trying to tackle migrant smuggling at sea. Its geographic scope, however, is significantly more limited compared with the Operation Mare Nostrum carried out by the Italian Navy and later superseded by Frontex’s Operation Triton. This should be expanded again. At the same time, the mandate of the operation should be widened to explicitly encourage search-and-rescue operations on top of its primary aim of disrupting smugglers’ networks. On its Italian shores, Europe should intensify its support for Italian authorities engaged in the establishment and management of so-called migrant hot spots. Indeed, while Rome has fulfilled most of its obligations by setting up new headquarters and boosting its processing rates, its European partners are struggling to make available specialized personnel for the hot spots and to relocate migrants already in Italy.
The ideas above are only a short-term interim solution, however. In the medium to long term, the international community needs to address the tremendous underlying challenges producing chaos in Libya. The newly established Government of National Accord must secure the support of all ethnic groups and major tribes. Having done that, the Islamic State must be rooted out through a very high-intensity but hopefully brief and localized conflict. Finally, a minimum degree of administrative capacity must be re-established beyond Tripoli.
All of the above require meaningful engagement with Libya on the part of Europe that will probably take years to reap benefits. Until that is forthcoming, an interim solution must be found, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
The piece was originally published in Foreign Policy.