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 This analysis describes the outdated European approach and the process of Europe’s rethinking its assumptions to improve its policy on migration through Libya.

In Libya: promote migrants’ rights, help reform the economy, support municipalities

Libya currently lacks a strong central government and will likely continue to for some time. EU policies should be realistic about the short-term progress Libya can make on migration management and avoid giving the impression − now widespread among Libyan policymakers − that the EU wants to transform Libya into a dumping ground for migrants.

Knowledge of the complex workings of the smuggling sector is crucial and reports such as that of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime offer critical insights into this underground industry.

EU and bilateral policies can have an effect by normalising respect for the human rights of migrants, while strengthening local economic and social resilience, and approving reforms of government spending to decrease incentives for smuggling.

First, the EU and its member states should promote respect for the rights of migrants held in detention centres and work to raise living conditions of migrants in Libya. As emphasised in numerous interviews with migrants who arrive in Europe from Libya, violations of human rights are one of the main drivers of migration. The EU and its member states could do four things to improve the situation:

  • Support the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR’s access to detention centres by providing funding and expert officers;

  • Increase support for IOM’s programmes for voluntary returns, particularly for vulnerable migrants;

  • Work with the Libyan central government, municipalities, and EUBAM Libya, to improve registration of migrants and provision of basic rights; and

  • Support Libyan civil society organisations that conduct monitoring and inspections of detention centres.

Second, the EU should avoid pitting Libyans against migrants. International assistance should flow to local Libyan communities where migrants are hosted or where they transit, as well to national institutions.

At present, less than half of the funds earmarked by the EU Trust Fund for the implementation of the EU-Libya deal will go to Libyan municipalities – and the total funding is a mere €90 million.

It remains to be seen whether Libya’s weak and disorganised national institutions can absorb and effectively administer even this initial €90 million. Further funding should be contingent on the effective use of current funds, or should be directed to Libyan municipalities or the UNDP Stabilisation Facility, which has already implemented many projects in Libya.

Among other things, EU assistance could support local projects to: expand the installation of solar panels to guarantee energy supply, particularly to desert communities that often go weeks without electricity; provide micro-credit, particularly targeting women entrepreneurs; improve local healthcare and facilitate migrants’ access to healthcare along the transit route, contributing to an early warning system regarding migration flows; and improve other local public services, thereby contributing to the stabilisation and good governance of communities in the fields of education, sewage, and waste collection.

Third, but no less important, the EU with its expertise in economic reform and budget oversight, is best placed to assist the Libyan government to reform its economic policy. Such reforms should be launched to undercut the smuggling economy.

The main area that needs to be reformed is subsidies, which smugglers routinely exploit to fund their business. Despite Libya’s institutional collapse, the Libyan government still heavily subsidises some goods: one litre of petrol in Libya costs LYD 15 cents (€ 0.10 at the official exchange rate) and smugglers sell it in neighbouring countries often for ten times as much. The money is then reinvested in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, or people.

The EU could help Libyan institutions impose incremental reforms to reduce the amount of goods that can be smuggled (there is enough subsidised petrol to satisfy domestic consumption three times over), while aiming to legalise some of the informal economic activity currently managed by smugglers, following in the footsteps of neighbouring Tunisia and Algeria, which are trying to ‘formalise the informal’.

Legalising less harmful aspects of smuggling could enable a more effective crackdown on the smuggling of people, drugs, and weapons. It would also help generate legal routes to employment for those currently involved in people smuggling.

Finally, the EU should support current Libyan efforts to curtail smuggling by providing intelligence, monitoring of flows, capacity building, and equipment to Libyan forces, assuming they prove to be reliable over time.

An EU Mission to build up Libyan capacity

EUBAM Libya was created after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi to help build Libya’s capacity to control its own borders. But it was withdrawn from Libya in 2014 when the civil war broke out and it is only being re-implemented very slowly under the new leadership. Its mission is still limited, for instance, in the type of actors with which it can engage.

At the moment it works with state actors, whose influence and reach in the country is limited due to the level of fragmentation and the number of informal non-state actors. The EU should review the mandate of EUBAM, treating it as a proper Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission.

The mission should be allowed to engage with and build the capacities of sub-state and non-state actors, such as municipalities, tribes, and civil society. Member states could contribute to these efforts by deploying political officers and mediators.

EUBAM should work towards enforcing localised models of border control and increased state effectiveness in smuggling hubs. On the coast, EUBAM should train Libyans on registration of rescued migrants. While at the level of the central government, EUBAM should work on building ‘networks of legality’ − rebuilding the judicial and police infrastructure, from the Criminal Investigation Departments to the offices of the public prosecutors.

Ultimately, all these measures would support Libyans in building an accountable, efficient, and impartial law enforcement system, which is one of the main needs felt by the population in a country that is effectively under militia rule.

Conclusions: Breaking taboos, managing public expectations

Managing public expectations is a key part of implementing any new policy on migration – especially ones that break taboos. Politicians in Brussels and in national capitals need to be clear that there is no quick fix for reducing migration flows unless Europeans are ready to begin allowing some legal economic migration.

In the absence of that, Europe can only work on medium-term strategies to gradually reduce flows and make them more manageable, with impacts likely to be felt in four to six years.

In the last two years EU policy-makers have struggled to implement a comprehensive policy on migration in the face of member states that still hold outdated and ineffective assumptions. Although transferring power from member states to the EU on migration might encounter resistance, creating a coalition of member states working through EU institutions and implementing a more pragmatic migration policy could offer a way forward. 

Ultimately, leaders within the EU and member states need to present options for addressing migration that overcome the popular perception that ‘closing the borders’ will resolve the problem. On the contrary, policies focused on halting migrant flows merely push more people towards illegal means of entry into Europe, creating a larger market for people smugglers.

Irregular migration, in turn, feeds popular European perceptions of physical insecurity connected to crime, and of economic insecurity due to competition for jobs and public services.

These feelings, in turn, contribute to the fortunes of anti-immigration parties, which have ridden the wave of anxiety arising from the perceived link between immigration and crime or terrorism.

The alternative to a ‘closed borders’ approach is not merely to open borders, but to build borders that can be managed, and through which non-European immigrants are properly identified and registered.

Elections and opinion polls throughout Europe demonstrate that anti-immigration parties garner a consistent minority but that in many western European member states there is a possible majority who consent to a more realistic policy on migration from Africa.

Chancellor Merkel’s oft-quoted statement at the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015: “Wir Schaffen Das” (we will cope with it) suggests that countries are doing their best to deal with the emergency and make the best of it.

But the German verb schaffen actually means ‘managing’ and this is really what Europe needs to do: deal with migration as an inevitable consequence of globalisation, a fact of life that has been there since man has been on earth, and an issue that needs to be handled in a constructive and realistic way.


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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