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 This analysis describes the outdated European approach and the process of Europe’s rethinking its assumptions to improve its policy on migration through Libya.


Re-thinking European assumptions

Four basic assumptions have shaped Europe’s collective response since 2015, and underpinned European policies since the mid-1990s. These assumptions need to be abandoned if a more effective policy is to emerge. These are:

Assumption 1: Refugees can find a different destination to migrate to

The consensus in Europe, shared both by mainstream and insurgent parties, is that although Europe has some obligations, the vast majority of refugees should broadly settle in safe third countries instead of coming to the EU. This principle was a cornerstone of the EU-Turkey refugee deal, and is paired with the belief that economic migrants should not be allowed on the continent at all. Yet, it is hard to find any credible safe third country that refugees from North Africa could go to.

Assumption 2: We can close our borders to economic migrants

Starting with restrictions on economic visas in the mid-1990s, policymakers responded to public anxieties over the growing foreign population in Europe with an effort to shut the continent off to economic migrants − an approach that exacerbated a deadly trend: people smuggling. People smugglers working the route from Libya to Italy flourished in the early 2000s after Italy approved the Bossi-Fini bill in 2002, which tightened regulations for migrants attempting to obtain a residency permit. In fact, irregular migrants still found jobs in Italy and elsewhere in Europe on the black market. Consequently, the number of undocumented migrants in Italy doubled between 2002 and 2006.

Assumption 3: Sending rescue boats creates an incentive to migrate

After the first big shipwrecks in the Mediterranean hit the news in 2013, Europeans started debating the pros and cons of enhanced ‘Search and Rescue’ (SAR) missions. Some member states argued that saving more migrants in the Mediterranean would create an incentive for them to take the treacherous journey. For this reason, in October 2014, under heavy pressure from the UK government and then Home Secretary Theresa May, the EU suspended search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, only to resume them six months later. The UK’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Nick Clegg, admitted that halting rescue operations does not stop migration flows.

Today, the EU focuses more on controlling borders and fighting people smugglers than on rescue operations, even as deaths in the Mediterranean continue to rise, indicating that the danger faced on the route does not act as a deterrent. Since late 2013, the number of migrants coming to Europe through Libya has skyrocketed. Up until 2013, arrivals averaged roughly 30,000-40,000 people per year. But the figure has been more than five times that for each of the last three years. This increase has taken place despite an unprecedented level of EU coordination on migration policy over the last two years.

Assumption 4: Money and build-up of local forces can solve the problem

European policies, both at EU and at member state level, are geared towards working with the most popular countries of origin and transit for migrants by providing financial assistance and training for security forces. There is an assumption in Europe that a combination of the two will halt illegal migration, but the EU’s dealings with Libya show that simply sending money and building capacity is not enough.

What Europe already does

Since the deadly shipwreck of 18 April 2015, the EU has put in place several measures to fight people smugglers and improve control of borders in cooperation with countries of origin. These measures are outlined below:

The Malta Declaration

On 2 February 2017, Italy signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to resume implementation of the 2009 Friendship Treaty between the two countries (which includes generous economic provisions for Libya) in exchange for a significant reduction in migration flows. The EU followed up a day later with the Malta Declaration, endorsing the terms of the Italy-Libya agreement. The goal, as per the Malta Declaration, is to “significantly reduce migratory flows by enabling the Libyan Coast Guard to ‘rescue’ a higher number of migrants and bring them back to Libya before they reach EU ships or EU territory”. It is effectively a lightly concealed outsourcing of
‘push-back’ activities. Ultimately, the goal of this policy is, as EU Council President Donald Tusk said, to close the central Mediterranean route in the same way that the Balkan route from Turkey and Greece was closed last year. On 12 April, the EU Trust Fund for Africa earmarked €90 million for implementation of the Malta Declaration through programmes to assist migrants in Libya, build Libyan institutional capacities and support city-based programmes for economic development. But a significant component of Europe’s strategy is to build-up the capacity of the Libyan Coast Guard, which has already started to bring migrants back to Libya before they reach rescue ships sent by the EU or European NGOs.

Operation Sophia

One of the key measures has been the joint anti-smuggling naval mission, Operation Sophia, otherwise known as EUNAVFOR MED, which was created following the big shipwreck in 2015. Vessels involved in the mission block smuggling routes and conduct rescue operations. On 20 June 2016, the mission’s mandate was upgraded to include training of the Libyan Coast Guard and enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Libya. Aside from arresting many smugglers, Operation Sophia has improved control over Europe’s southern border and, through enforcement of the UN arms embargo, can help to make sure no weapons illegally reach Libya from the sea.

Training the Libyan Coast Guard

In October 2016, the EU, through Operation Sophia started training the Libyan coast guard and navy. The first batch of trainees has now graduated and a second batch is being trained at the time of writing. The Mediterranean is effectively the EU’s southern border and it cannot be controlled without cooperation and a build-up of forces on the Libyan side.

Although the EU’s flagship policy of training the Libyan coastguard has been perceived as part of a policy of concealed push-backs, it is necessary. And although these push-backs help the EU to protect its own borders, it is important to note that they do not constitute an ‘outsourcing’ of the solution. Training activities give Libya’s coastguard solid skills. Among those skills, increased awareness of human rights and knowledge of how to save lives at sea. A coherent EU policy on migration must involve cooperation between forces on both sides of the border.

The EU Border Assistance Mission to Libya (EUBAM)

EUBAM Libya was revamped in 2016 and tasked with building up Libya’s capacity to control its borders, strengthening the rule of law, and improving investigative capacities to bust smuggling rings. However, its mandate is still limited because it engages mostly with state actors such as ministries or government agencies that are traditionally weak in Libya, and which have little latitude to work and negotiate with powerful sub-state and non-state actors.

The Partnership Frameworks with countries of origin and transit

In June 2016, the European Commission launched partnerships with countries of origin and transit. These Partnership Frameworks are bespoke packages with countries such as Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Senegal. The EU is meant to deliver development aid, strike trade agreements, conduct capacity-building for the security sector, and, where possible, increase mobility for migrants. However, the EU itself has little leverage over legal migration because most categories of visas are still issued by member states. The EU also has few powers when it comes to striking trade agreements, since even the simplest of agreements can take years to negotiate. This leaves the EU with just capacity-building and assistance as areas in which it can hope to make a real difference.

Fighting the root causes of migration

In the last two years, several financial instruments were adopted by the EU to fight the root causes of migration. Following the EU-Africa summit in Valletta in November 2015, the EU Trust Fund for Africa was created to finance measures to manage migration flows across the continent. The European External Investment Plan is also tasked with fighting the root causes of migration.

But fighting the root causes of migration by giving development aid money can be counterproductive if one’s goal is to reduce migration flows. There is plenty of literature demonstrating that as a country moves up the development ladder its migration rate tends to increase because more people achieve the level of education and health that enables them to migrate. This does not mean Europe should stop its development aid, quite the opposite. It means that it should measure the impact of its aid by the improvement of the economic performance of target countries, not in the reduction of migration flows.


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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