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Libya's migrant crisis and the EU's myopia

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Libya's migrant crisis and the EU's myopia

Jalel Harchaoui

26 Jan 2018

5min min read
  • Migration
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ibya never transitioned into a functioning state after the NATO-Arab military intervention ended in October 2011. One obstacle has been the sheer amount of weapons in circulation. That, combined with polarised politics, caused Libya’s national territory to remain fragmented. The fragmentation in turn enabled Libyan and foreign groups alike to make money off of illicit activities in all impunity. In the absence of strong, corruption-free state institutions, militias controlling particular geographic or logistical assets utilise the threat of violence to regulate commodity flows for profit. Irregular migration is one such illicit business.

In this environment, human smugglers act as brokers between the migrants and the various local militias. They coordinate the journey through Libya into the Mediterranean for migrants hailing from Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Bangladesh and other countries. Some have enough money for the whole voyage. Many do not. Most seek to reach the European Union’s shores. For each segment of the Libyan trek, the relevant militia demands a fee for the physical access it provides. Political scientists call this phenomenon a "protection economy". 

Militias are well armed and often enjoy full dominance over the parcel of territory they claim. In some areas, their territorial control is so complete, the migrant is viewed merely as a piece of merchandise among others. The armed groups obey none of Libya’s three rival governments. Even formations claiming to combat crime and carry the label of some ministry or other continue to partake in illegal schemes on the side.

Between October 2013 and July 2017, the dynamic described above saw over 630 000 undocumented sub-Saharan citizens, principally via Libya, make it into Italy and, for the most the part, stay there or end up in Germany. 

In contrast, France has been insulated from Libya’s migrant crisis. The Alpine border crossing has been kept largely impermeable to irregular migrants seeking to exit Italy and enter France. Paris has even used its army’s domestic Opération Sentinelle – officially dedicated to counterterrorism – for the purpose of militarising the Alpine border and blocking migrants out, at the risk of causing some of them to die in the mountains. French authorities have also begun deporting migrants who do make it from Italy back into Italy, invoking the Dublin II Regulation. A recent article in Le Monde aptly described the Macron presidency as hell-bent on earmarking, deterring and expelling the largest amount possible of would-be asylum requesters before they have the chance to apply for protection.

"Since France is largely walled off from Libya’s migrant crisis, it can afford to, and does, advocate a militarised solution to it."

Rome, meanwhile, has been left facing Libya’s migrant crisis alone. Starting in late 2016, the Italian government adopted a complex, multi-faceted strategy, whose objective has been to reduce the flow of migrants into Sicily almost regardless of the human consequences triggered on the North African territory itself. Italy also violates international law by helping Libyan groups carry out refoulement on its behalf. The Italians’ Libya policy, spearheaded by Interior Minister Marco Minniti and backed by the EU, consists of making sure an array of militias are rewarded into serving its short-term interests. 

Rome’s program has succeeded in slashing the human flow via the Central Mediterranean route. It also came with sinister ramifications on Libyan soil. Italy’s interference catalysed a battle in September between contending militias in the western-coastal city of Sabratha that killed dozens of Libyan civilians. The number of migrants stranded in the area rose to 20 000 – from about 6 000 prior to the Italian intervention – leading to more predatory practices and a worsening of already poor conditions. The Italian government denies all of the above. Instead, it boasts of having vanquished illegality in western Libya by instituting legal management of human flows there. Those are pure electoral fictions even though Italy did make a few humanitarian gestures that others in the EU did not.

Paris’s perception of Libya is profoundly different from Rome’s. Since France is largely walled off from Libya’s migrant crisis, it can afford to, and does, advocate a militarised solution to it. A forceful approach –although likely to cause a long period of heightened violence and mayhem if it is indeed implemented – is seen as the most effective path to stability by the Macron administration. In November, Paris called for intervention in Libya, suggesting “a concrete initiative that is military and police-like in nature, on the ground”. 

After President Emmanuel Macron’s rallying cry at the EU-African Union summit in Abidjan in November 2017 failed to galvanise a firm international response, he tried once more last month, by urging “very deft action to dismantle these [armed] groups” which enable human smuggling in Libya. 

Several experts have called France’s proposed initiative vague, opportunistic and unrealistic. Its calls for overt outside action may have failed to gather steam this time, but Paris remains likely to try again this year. (Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s current foreign minister and main hawk on Libya, has recommended overt military intervention there several times since September 2014.) 

During his visit to Niger, Macron vowed not to follow a security-first approach just south of Libya. He highlighted France’s commitment to fostering "economic development for the purpose of making a difference over the long haul" and to addressing the "root causes" of instability in the Sahel. Macron also insisted on France’s “political and diplomatic action” in the area. The chasm, however, between the French leader’s words and deeds abroad seems just as wide as it is on the issue of asylum seekers at home.

A self-defeating scramble

Throughout 2017, divergence among member states proved the principal manifestation of EU’s frailty. But this year, convergence will be the main – and perhaps more self-defeating – trend. 

Almost all EU governments are indeed rushing toward parochial, securitised responses to the migrant crisis. Poland, Hungary and Denmark refused to comply with an European Commission plan agreed in 2015 to allocate 160 000 migrants fairly among states. Austria’s new far-right government, whose predecessor militarised the Italian border, wants to toughen up the EU’s external borders, and, by way of a military intervention, have migrants interned on African soil, including in Libya. As Vienna and the Visegrád Group bluntly promote an illiberal and authoritarian approach to the migrant crisis, Brussels is unlikely to try bringing them into the fold. In fact, the EU has begun embracing their inclination. 

Concretely, this backsliding to a security-only approach equates to a tacit abandonment of necessary institution-building initiatives in Libya. The consensus taking shape now across the EU is one for a policy of mere containment of Libya by the use of force, and little else. This diminishes the chances of a recovery of  the embattled North African country from its failed-state status. 

If state-building efforts are allowed to peter out (as they have been), the ongoing civil war will drag on; human suffering inside Libya will increase; and its problems will worsen, not improve, leading to much more formidable bouts of anarchy further down the road. Said differently, the EU, by turning its back on liberal values, is taking short-sighted measures that in effect will help the migrant crisis grow in size later on.

"The EU member states that claim to be the standard-bearers of liberal democracy — France, Germany, Italy, Britain and others — should forge a Libya policy that is unified, coherent, comprehensive, transparent, lawful and humane."

Sometimes in world affairs, observance of international law, respect for human rights and faithfulness to liberal values happen to also hold the surest promise of delivering a durable solution to a crisis. Libya’s migrant mess is one such instance. The EU member states that claim to be the standard-bearers of liberal democracy — France, Germany, Italy, Britain and others — should forge a Libya policy that is unified, coherent, comprehensive, transparent, lawful and humane. They should reject the siren songs of the far-right core that has coalesced within the EU. To pursue the demagogic fantasies of Fortress Europe, surrounded by ramparts and internment camps, will only lead to making the human flow traversing Libya grow larger, and less manageable, over time.

(Main image: A Libyan coast guard stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 illegal immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45 kilometres west of the capital Tripoli, on June 27 2017. —  Taha Jawashi / AFP/Getty Images)