By Mattia Toaldo

The Maltese plan is less about managing migration and more about reducing the numbers arriving in Europe at any cost.

This time last year, Europe was just starting the discussions which led to the refugee deal with Turkey, under which migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey are sent back, with Europe resettling a corresponding number of successful asylum applicants from Turkey in return. While far from perfect, that deal was successful in reducing the pressure on Greece and the Balkan countries from the high volume of new arrivals in the year leading up to the deal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, discussions are now beginning over another possible deal, which would address the Central Mediterranean route of migration from Libya to Italy. Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of Malta (which lies between those two countries), has proposed a system under which Libyan and European vessels would intercept migrant boats in Libyan waters, returning them to Libyan ports. In theory, these migrants would be processed by UNHCR and IOM officials funded by the EU. Those that qualify for asylum would be afforded passage to Europe, while those who do not would be resettled in Libya or repatriated to their countries of origin.

The Maltese idea, already discussed at the level of Permanent Representatives of the member states, will be on the table at the EU Council in Malta on 3 February, with the discussion likely continuing in the Foreign Affairs Council the following Monday. The Commission will likely table its proposal as well. But there are several reasons why the Maltese plan should be rejected.

Libya is not Turkey

Unlike Turkey, Libya is in the midst of a civil war, with three rival ‘governments’ competing for control of law enforcement bodies. Even with the help of UNHCR/IOM officials, it is madness to expect Libya to be able to implement the EU’s plans. The EU has already made this mistake when deciding to extend Operation Sophia (the anti-smuggling operation in the Mediterranean) to Libyan waters, upon approval of the Libyan government. Unsurprisingly, the approval never came. As such, rather than being resettled in Libya or repatriated to their countries of origin, it is far more likely that migrants brought back to Libya will end up in detention centres.

Which brings us to the second point. Again, unlike Turkey, Libya has never even tried to ratify international conventions on human rights. Indeed, violations of basic rights in Libya are one of the main push factors for migration to Europe, and migrants arriving in Italy have reported being abused, starved and even raped in Libyan detention centres. These reports recently led an Italian court to recognise a form of protection (though not refugee status) to Nigerian migrants who had come to Italy after years living in Libya.  It would be immoral for the EU to pursue a policy which is likely to increase human rights violations of this kind.

Europe is not genuine

The fact that the EU is ready to consider a plan that has such serious flaws tells us that this is not really about improving processes for managing migration, but about reducing – at any cost – the numbers of migrants arriving on European shores.

This is partly based on the assumption that those coming from Libya (unlike those coming from Syria through Turkey) are predominantly economic migrants, for whom Europe does not have responsibility. But UNHCR data shows that as much as 45% of those who arrived in Italy in the first three quarters of 2016 could qualify for protection. Given the political climate in Europe, it is almost certain that a way would be found to refuse asylum to these people – just as the UK is currently doing in relation to Eritrea.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t strike a deal with Libya. In order to have managed and orderly migrations we should have as many deals as possible with our neighbours. But these deals should neither destabilise the governments with which we sign them nor betray our commitment to human rights. A European deal with Libya should therefore focus on improving conditions within the country and ensuring the respect of basic rights of migrants. Some basic guidelines for such a deal have been outlined here.

Getting to the root of the problem

More broadly, if we want to destroy the business model of smugglers, as often proclaimed by mainstream European leaders, we should allow Africans to submit their asylum requests or their visa applications closer to their country of origin, not after crossing the Sahara illegally. Policies aimed at criminalising migrants and limiting avenues for legal migration, which have become the norm in Europe since the mid-1990’s, have only benefitted the smugglers and those who profit from cheap, illegal labour from undocumented migrants in Europe.

Instead of doing a dirty deal with Libya, European policymakers should expand legal access to asylum in countries of origin and simultaneously crack down on smuggling networks, to ensure that migrants don’t end up in the Libyan hell in the first place.


Mattia Toaldo is a policy fellow for ECFR’s Middle East & North Africa programme where he focuses on Libya, Israel/Palestine and migration issues. Mattia is a member of the Council of the Society for Libyan Studies and of the scientific board of Limes, the Italian review of Geopolitics.


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