By Mattia Toaldo

The refugee crisis, as we know it, led the EU to re-think its migration policy in a way that seemed unthinkable just a few years before. This analysis describes the outdated European approach and the process of Europe’s rethinking its assumptions to improve its policy on migration through Libya.



  • Two years after the start of the refugee crisis, migration flows via Libya to Europe are increasing, while deaths in the Mediterranean have skyrocketed. Current policies have failed to reduce the number of migrants reaching Europe’s shores.

  • The EU and its member states need to rethink their basic assumptions about migration and break popular taboos about the movement of people if they are going to reduce flows. The first step is to cast away the idea that borders can be completely closed to economic migrants.

  • The EU and its member states need to manage flows, rather than aiming to cut them to zero. To do this, legal migration channels should be opened so that illegal channels can be shut via a series of readmission agreements.

  • Through a coalition of the willing, EU member states can implement this policy, which should also involve establishing safe and quick procedures to guarantee asylum to refugees; reinforcing the Libyan economy and its local communities; building respect for the rule of law and human rights; and finally, broadening the scope of the EU Border Assistance Mission to Libya.  


What Europe should do:

  • opening legal channels for migration and returning irregular migrants;

  • establishing safe and quick procedures to guarantee asylum to refugees;

  • reinforcing the Libyan economy and its local communities;

  • building respect for the rule of law and human rights;

  • broadening the scope of the EUBAM Libya.


The refugee crisis is now over two years old, but the flow of migrants arriving in Europe still continues. Although refugees had been arriving in Europe from North Africa for many years, it was in 2015 that the issue made it onto the front pages. The refugee crisis, as we know it, led the EU to re-think its migration policy in a way that seemed unthinkable just a few years before.

After a big shipwreck off the coast of Libya on 18 April 2015 claimed hundreds of migrants’ lives, the EU launched policies geared towards fighting people smugglers through Operation Sophia, ramped-up cooperation with transit countries and countries of origin, and eventually, offered comprehensive cooperation packages with countries of transit and origin.

Two years down the line, flows from Turkey and through the Balkans have dramatically reduced, but it’s a different story for flows from North Africa. Migration to Europe through Libya, in particular, is increasing and seems no more under control than it was two years ago. Current EU policies aimed at limiting migration are facing a stalemate situation. To yield any positive results, the goals and the policies themselves have to change. The elections taking place in key European capitals in 2017 could provide the shake-up needed for governments to adjust their policies. This paper seeks to propose what adjustments should be made, and how governments can implement them. 

The EU is still struggling to find the right approach to managing migration flows from Libya. In particular, it faces difficulties in processing asylum applications and implementing readmission agreements. Asylum applications are still processed far too slowly and the system is overburdened because many see asylum as their only way to legally remain in Europe. The system could be at least partially relieved if channels for legal migration to Europe were opened.

Current policies focus on reducing the number of migrants, but end up achieving the opposite. Alongside proposing new policy positions for the EU, this paper will expose four incorrect assumptions that have contributed to policymaking on this issue in the past two decades. Secondly, before setting out what alternative policies should be implemented, this paper will evaluate current policies to understand which are useful and which need to change. The third part of this paper will provide some policy options to help member states manage migration into Europe. Finally, the conclusion reflects on the balance between member states’ and EU policies, and how coalitions of member states engaging in ‘enhanced cooperation’ (as laid out in the Lisbon Treaty) could be the solution to developing better policies.

A blinkered and outdated approach

The EU has been under heavy pressure from individual member states to focus on two goals:

  • Increasing control of the EU’s maritime borders, and

  • reducing the number of refugees and migrants embarking on the treacherous sea crossing in the first place.

But these goals have not been achieved. Migration from Libya and Egypt to Italy increased by almost 18 percent in 2016, and was 25.7 percent higher in the first four months of 2017 than in the same period last year.

These figures highlight the need for the EU and member states to re-think their approach to the migration challenge. A more comprehensive approach is needed that balances increased legal migration with faster and more effective returns of irregular migrants, while respecting their human rights. Policies aimed at ‘closing the borders’ simply do not work because they push more people towards illicit smuggling networks. Flows can only be cut by managing migration rather than simply attempting to cut it to zero.

The current approach is both outdated and blinkered. It’s high time that the EU and its member states abandoned entrenched policies from the late 1990s that make legal economic migration from outside Europe almost impossible. Shutting down processes for legal economic migration has caused more illegal migration, which in turn has increased the sense of physical and economic insecurity many EU citizens experience when they think about migration from the MENA region. Without a legal option for migration, many migrants and refugees resort to paying people smugglers to get them to Europe.

The trend of people-smuggling has only been exacerbated by the refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian civil war. Compared to refugees from other nations, Syrians were more willing (and able) to pay higher prices to cross the Mediterranean. This extra revenue allowed smugglers, whose business had been boosted by the restrictive policies of the 1990s, to significantly increase the number of people they could smuggle and lower their prices, creating a situation in which there were more seats, in worse boats, at a lower cost. Because of these market dynamics, even when Syrians began taking the more direct eastern Mediterranean route to flee the civil war in 2015, the number departing from Libya remained well above 100,000 per year.

Europe’s primary method for stopping the flow of migrants out of Libya has been to boost Libya’s border/coastal patrol capacity rather than actively manage the flows. But the inconvenient truth is that even though policies for capacity building and stabilisation are important, their impact on migration flows will only be felt in the mid to long term. If the EU wants to curb irregular flows from Libya more quickly, it must sign readmission agreements with countries of origin, and to do that, it must propose channels for legal migration.

Ultimately, the best way to respond to the anxiety of their citizens about migration is for European leaders to focus on the integration of migrants in the European society. With no opportunity for legal migration, it is often ‘illegal’ migrants who end up in Europe, which makes integration all the more difficult. because these irregular migrants tend to find jobs in the informal sector and generally live on the margins of society. While it is not the point of this paper to discuss integration of migrants, it is worth remembering that a managed flow of people makes integration easier.

To be contiued


Mattia Toaldo is a senior policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at ECFR where he focuses on Libya and migration.


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