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.
The challenge for the EU is to find short-term fixes for the emergency, while at the same time working on long-term policy solutions. Realistically, the EU should shift its goalposts, aiming to manage flows rather than cut them drastically, while enhancing its ability to save lives. Creating more legal channels of migration could offer a real incentive for African countries to crack down on the illegal channels – parallel to the visa liberalisation offered elsewhere.
Adding NATO to Operation Sophia is unlikely to substantially change the picture – though it won’t hurt. Instead, in the coming months the EU should focus on three policy baskets.
#1 Sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with countries from both sides of the Mediterranean to manage the crisis at sea and on the coasts
This would directly involve Libya, Italy, Malta, Tunisia, and, where possible, Egypt. The EU would be a signatory to the agreement, but co-ownership from the southern shore of the Mediterranean should be a priority. This MoU would include:
Joint patrolling missions, which in the past were the most effective tool in addressing flows from North Africa;
Support for Libyan efforts to improve governance of the maritime security sector;
Agreements to process migrants under the Geneva Convention (the 1951 Convention on Refugees);
Support Libya to improve the conditions and treatment of migrants who are rescued in its territory.
#2 Launch a CSDP mission to manage the crisis in Libya and on Libya’s borders
An EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission could offer assistance to the Libyans (both the central government and local authorities) to rebuild the judiciary; train police forces; and help to improve the governance of the security sector while strengthening accountability.
Importantly, this EU mission should be tasked not just with technical capacity-building for border control, but should also offer political assistance across three fields:
Developing a decentralised border control system with local communities, while at the same time building up central oversight and accountability;
Mediating between the central government and local communities;
Helping Libyan economic institutions and the Government of National Accord (GNA) to tackle the economic drivers of smuggling, particularly the subsidy system. This encourages the smuggling of subsidised goods such as petrol, which is the first link in a chain that ultimately involves the smuggling of people, arms, and drugs.
#3 Make a multilateral agreement with countries of transit and/or origin for migrants south of Libya
The EU should work on a multilateral memorandum of understanding with Libya, Niger, Algeria, Mali and other relevant Sahel countries, with the participation of the IOM and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
This agreement should focus on five points:
Using the EU Trust Fund for Africa to boost political and economic integration between West Africa, the Sahel, and the Maghreb. Migration flows have traditionally been most important between countries of ECOWAS (the economic cooperation organisation for West Africa) and Maghreb countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and especially Libya. The EU should use its Trust Fund to promote projects that allow legal migration within this zone.
The EU must allow for some legal circular migration from this area (West Africa and the Sahel) if it wants genuine buy-in from African countries to a crackdown on illegal migration. While it is politically unthinkable to offer visa liberalisation as in other migration agreements, the EU should put on the table a certain number of circular migration work permits that allow Africans to come to Europe for a few months every year for low-skilled jobs in agriculture and other sectors.
The EU should work to boost the IOM’s capacity to carry out voluntary assisted returns from transit countries in Africa for those migrants who do not qualify for circular migration to the EU, and have not found a job in the projects funded by the Trust Fund. It is worth assessing whether resources from the Trust Fund can be allocated as incentives for voluntary returns, and to local communities who accept an EU commitment to boost the local economy in exchange for cutting migration.
As part of this framework, the EU should work with Niger, Algeria, Mali, and other countries to crack down on illegal migration through more effective border controls and readmission agreements. But this will only work if there are legal channels for intra-African migration, and to allow limited numbers to enter the EU.
Not all flows through Libya are economic migrants – some are refugees from West Africa and the Horn of Africa. The EU should ensure that these refugees receive adequate protection in neighbouring countries, both by pushing for legislation and supporting initiatives, and through actions similar to the London summit on Syria’s neighbours, which created a multi-billion dollar fund for countries neighbouring Syria to support their assistance to refugees
Some of these measures may seem a long shot. Yet the kind of agreements proposed by the EU Commission in June, under pressure from some member states, are unlikely to be signed any time soon, and it’s unclear how effectively they could be implemented. Even with NATO support, Operation Sophia is unlikely to have an impact on the business model of people smugglers. A three-pronged policy upstream, downstream and in Libya is more realistic, provided it limits itself to managing the flows humanely rather than chasing the unrealistic goal of cutting down numbers in the short term.
The author owes special thanks to Mohammed Farhat, Chargé d’Affairs of the Libyan mission to the EU.
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