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 This analysis describes the outdated European approach and the process of Europe’s rethinking its assumptions to improve its policy on migration through Libya.


What Europe should do

Despite its best efforts, the EU has far fewer instruments at its disposal compared to member states, and unfortunately, few of these instruments are likely to reduce migration or make it more manageable. But Europe is not without alternative options that could create a win-win situation, including 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; and finally, broadening the scope of the EUBAM Libya.

Opening legal migration channels to close illegal ones

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 61 percent of those who arrive in Italy from Libya do not qualify for any form of protection. The return of these undocumented migrants to their home countries is one of the EU’s top priorities, but it is unlikely to be fulfilled in the absence of readmission agreements (i.e. forced returns) with several countries of origin.

Some migrants are exploiting loopholes in the current Italian legislation, which automatically labels some nationals economic migrants rather than refugees eligible for asylum. For example,, Moroccans or Bangladeshis are generally labelled economic migrants and ordered to leave Italy within seven days of arrival. In the absence of a readmission agreement, many such migrants use these seven days to ‘go underground’ and find a job in the informal sector.

Even though readmission agreements are key to managing irregular migration, putting them into effect has so far proved a daunting task. Unlike with the Turkey-Balkans route, migrants taking the central Mediterranean route originate from multiple countries and the mix of countries is constantly changing. The EU and its member states have not, so far, been able to make any significant progress on the issue of forced returns, in part due to the failures of the current European approach.

At present, the EU offers financial assistance and development aid to secure readmission agreements with countries of origin, but this assistance is usually insufficient to offset the profits that local smugglers make from irregular migration.

For these countries, deals based on ‘EU money in exchange for smaller flows’ present an attractive opportunity: reduce flows enough to justify European payments while increasing the bribes requested from migrants and smugglers who continue to make their way to Europe. Even for smugglers, a small reduction in migration flows helps business: when there are fewer available ‘tickets’ the trip to Europe becomes more expensive.

If the EU or some of its member states want to implement quick and effective readmission agreements additional incentives are required that target both the governments and the people of the countries of origin.

One such incentive could be visas for migrants in exchange for a commitment to swiftly take back all citizens of the same country who have arrived illegally on EU territory. Issuing visas would not only enable Europe to manage migrant flows, but boost remittances to countries of origin too − a win for both sides. The worldwide flow of remittances is estimated by the World Bank to be worth over $400 billion dollars annually and it far outweighs any development aid money the EU can offer. This kind of ‘aid’ costs nothing to the taxpayer.

Legal migration arrangements would also undercut human smuggling, because only migrants who have never attempted illegal migration would be granted visas. To facilitate absorption and integration, visas for economic migrants could be set at one quarter of illegal arrivals in 2016 from each country, or any other fraction of past flows that is both realistic in terms of absorption in EU countries and attractive for countries of origin. Visas could be assigned by lottery to all citizens of the country of origin who have never attempted illegal migration and who register for the programme.

The EU does not need to reinvent the wheel on this issue. It already has mobility partnerships with some countries, through which visa issuance is linked to more effective border controls by countries of origin and transit, although the overall focus of these partnerships was prevention of illegal immigration rather than labour mobility.[22] So far, only Tunisia and Morocco among North African countries have mobility partnerships with the EU. No mobility partnership has been signed with any sub-Saharan countries. 

The European Commission has, on numerous occasions, considered a ‘grand bargain’ that accepts some legal migration for stricter implementation of readmission agreements. These deals have been dropped in many cases because of political constraints (even mentioning legal economic migration sounds toxic to the European electorate). But even if there was public buy-in, the EU has its hands tied because it holds very few powers for issuing work visas, most of which rest in the hands of member states.

The EU may not have the overall power to issue work visas, but it could incentivise member states to get on board with its plans, particularly if there is a clear link between granting work visas for legal migration and being protected from illegal migration by readmission agreements. This system could be implemented either through enhanced cooperation, as per the Lisbon Treaty, or through multilateral agreements between interested EU member states and each country of origin or transit.

Fair and quick procedures for asylum-seekers

Readmission agreements come into force when an asylum-seeker’s application is rejected or when an economic migrant is trying to illegally enter an EU member state. However, the system for processing asylum-seekers, and assessing the validity of their applications, needs to be improved to make it fairer and more efficient.

Today, asylum-seekers disembarking in Sicily can wait months, if not years, for their cases to be adjudicated. Italy recently changed its legislation to speed up asylum processing, but at the expense of eliminating in-person interviews. Instead, asylum-seekers must submit a short recorded clip explaining their situation, without any interaction with the panel. Although this change in procedure may reduce processing time − eliminating the wait time for asylum interviews − it undercuts the evaluation process by preventing applicants from effectively presenting their case.

Ultimately, the dilemma that comes with choosing between thorough processing (which takes time), and high-level but quick processing, is a false one. It is possible to be both thorough and efficient. The European Stability Initiative, a think-tank focused on southeast Europe and migration issues, published a comprehensive proposal which recommends that an EU Asylum Mission be deployed to EU ports of disembarkation, such as Sicily. This mission would “deal with claims within four weeks, while ensuring the quality of decisions through quality control mechanisms and trained staff, backed up by competent interpreters and with available legal aid”.[23] This proposal offers a viable option for improving the asylum application process.

In addition, setting up an effective screening mechanism for asylum-seekers would help eliminate the need for them to risk the dangerous Mediterranean boat crossing in the first place by allowing for mechanisms in which asylum-seekers reach Europe safely and their applications can be quickly and fairly assessed. The EU should promote humanitarian corridors and sponsorships (see the Canadian model) for refugees, enabling EU individuals, organisations, or local communities to take responsibility for accepting and managing the resettlement of refugees. These refugees would be identified near their country of origin and be flown directly to Europe with a temporary visa, further undercutting the business model of smugglers. They would then undergo the fast and fair processing described above and their visa would have territorial limits, so they would not be allowed to leave the country of destination until their application has been fully processed.


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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