At last week’s summit, NATO approved Operation Sea Guardian (points 91-93 here) which will complement and support Operation Sophia, an existing EU naval intervention, in its mission to tackle people smugglers and implement the UN arms embargo on Libya. But apart from providing intelligence and surveillance resources, it is not clear what NATO’s contribution will be.
It is not surprising that the Warsaw Summit devoted attention to naval operations to tackle migration across the Central Mediterranean.
This issue is particularly high on the agenda of some EU member states, particularly Italy, which have pressed in recent months for action from the EU and NATO.
However, it is not clear that the operation will have any positive results. The EU wants NATO’s help to boost Operation Sophia, which has failed to curb migrant deaths in the Mediterranean or to reduce flows into Europe.
At the same time, the EU is pushing for unrealistic “readmission agreements” with African countries, in the hope of boosting the number of forced returns of unauthorised migrants from Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa. Ultimately, the EU is asking NATO to cooperate on policies that are unlikely to have a big impact.
Yet an alternative plan is possible, provided European governments make the effort to understand the real drivers of the crisis.
Flows through Libya to Italy did not increase much in the first six months of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, but casualties have gone up dramatically. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted almost 3,000 casualties in the Mediterranean since 1 January, almost double the figure for last year.
The Central Mediterranean route was the focus of the initial outcry over the “refugee crisis” in April last year, after almost 800 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya. The public response initially led to an emphasis on “saving lives”, but EU policy soon settled on a goal more in tune with the prevailing anti-immigration mood of public opinion in almost all the 28 member states: stopping migrants from making the journey in the first place.
A two-part plan
In the last year, the EU has implemented two major policies to manage migration through Libya. Downstream in the Mediterranean, it tasked Operation Sophia with intercepting and destroying the vessels of migrant smugglers. This operation does not have “saving lives” as a stated priority, but vessels from EU countries often end up doing this on a daily basis, though they are not fully equipped for the task.
Upstream in Africa – the starting point for many migrants and refugees who come to Libya and then on to Italy – the EU’s policy was summed up in 7 June Commission statement. It focused on creating a system of sticks and carrots to push African countries to sign “readmission agreements” (i.e. agreements to accept forced returns of their own citizens and third-country nationals) either with the EU or – more realistically – with EU member states.
Neither policy can really be called a recipe for success, no matter what one’s priorities are. The Framework Partnership with African countries envisaged by the Commission builds on the same principle of “conditionality” that has failed in the European Neighbourhood Policy: the EU expects a change of policy by a third country in exchange for a few hundred million euros (at most). In order to really reduce the flows, the EU would have to sign several agreements, as migrants from more than 50 countries use this route. Each agreement takes years to negotiate, and is costly to implement.
If Operation Sophia is judged by the number of casualties in the Mediterranean, it has clearly failed. Indeed, it is a failure even if it is judged by its ability to stop migrant boats setting off from Libya.
True, the operation was meant to have three phases, of which the last and most important was to be tackling smugglers in Libyan territorial waters and onshore.
The EU sought permission from the Libyan unity government formed in January of this year to implement this final part of the plan, but, predictably, the Libyans have no appetite for inviting foreign troops into their territory. The EU recently decided to offer to train the Libyan coastguard – a more realistic goal – but this will take time to implement, as participants in the programme need to be vetted.
Even with NATO support, it is not clear how much Operation Sophia can do without a reasonable degree of cooperation and co-ownership from the Libyan side. More importantly, joint naval operations in the Mediterranean can have an impact on the number of casualties, if done properly, but are unlikely to reduce flows (which is the EU’s overall goal) as this depends mostly on what happens upstream.
Once migrants and refugees leave their countries of origin, they can either stay in Libya or move to Europe. Most migrants who travel to Libya stay there, and officials from international organisations privately acknowledge there are currently around 700,000 foreigners in the country.
But a fraction of those who arrive in Libya will still try to get to Europe: if 2014 and 2015 are of any indication, between 150,000 and 200,000 people should be expected – and in fact about half that figure have travelled to Italy from Libya so far in 2016.
An alternative policy
Ultimately, the Central Mediterranean route is here to stay – unless you think that Libya will soon be “fixed” and get back to being a reliable partner in reducing flows to Europe, and a more attractive final destination for migrants. In June 2013, Altai Consulting estimated that there were 1.7 million migrants in the country.
While the rapid growth of the Balkan route into Europe in 2015 was due mostly to the Syrian civil war, migration through Libya is part of a longstanding flow from Africa to Europe. The numbers using the route have gone up and the price of the crossing has gone down, while an increasing number of young Libyans have got involved in the business of people smuggling, often taking out loans to buy trucks to carry people to safe-houses, where they are locked up before the crossing.
The author owes special thanks to Mohammed Farhat, Chargé d’Affairs of the Libyan mission to the EU.
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