Last month, European Union leaders met in Malta, in the words of European Council President Donald Tusk, to “agree [to] concrete operational measures to stem irregular migration from Libya to Europe.” The statement was an unusually frank expression of EU intentions in the Mediterranean: to regulate, limit, or halt mixed migration flows on the Central Mediterranean that include tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers each year.
It also reflects the growing impatience at the EU headquarters in Brussels, an impatience pushing policymakers towards quick fixes with little or no regard for human rights safeguards or actionable plans, before the migration season starts in April.
Since a controversial EU agreement signed with Turkey last March, many European policymakers are vying for a repeat (or similar) scenario with Libya — what’s been called “Europe’s last resort” — to limit Mediterranean migration since the Turkey route is mostly closed off. More than 181,000 people arrived in Europe via the Central Mediterranean last year, most of them on perilous dinghies and fishing boats setting out from the Libyan coast.
At the informal summit on February 3, EU leaders signed off on the Malta Declaration and endorsed a February 2 Italian-Libyan memorandum of understanding (MoU) through which the Italian government will fund, support, and train Libya’s coastguard; expanding on existing EU training programs. The European Commission is also fronting an additional €200 million to support development and integration projects in North Africa, with priority given to “migration-related projects concerning Libya.” According to the plan, UNHCR and IOM will assist with improving reception conditions, and handling returns and repatriation for those deemed not in need of international protection.
By training a non-European coastguard on the EU’s external borders, Brussels may ultimately hope to outsource search-and-rescue operations so that refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are returned to Libya rather than brought to Europe for asylum processing. With it, the Italian-Libyan MoU gives the EU a blueprint — albeit a sketchy one — for outsourcing returns and detentions without being directly involved or culpable per se.
At the same time, the EU is touting a policy of “externalized” asylum processing that could involve Libya and its neighbors: Egypt and Tunisia. Few asylum seekers are processed on Europe’s frontiers and even fewer given the opportunity to travel to Europe legally. That being said, this idea has circulated for years. In reality, many of those returned under the MoU run the risk of being forcibly deported regardless of any potential asylum claim they might have. It is unlikely that Europe’s North African neighbors presently have the legal infrastructure or political will to responsibly — and safely — absorb large numbers of non-nationals.
Libya in particular has a myriad of challenges. The country is currently home to two sparring governments, armed groups, and human traffickers due to the security vacuum. Immigration detention facilities run by the Ministry of Interior, in reality are controlled by armed militias — and conditions inside are abysmal. A diplomatic cable by the German Embassy in Niger recently documented “executions of countless migrants, torture, rape, bribery, and banishment to the desert on a daily basis.” Eyewitnesses reported up to five executions per week in one Libyan prison, effectively to make space for more detainees and rack-up smuggler revenues. It is therefore not surprising that in December, a major UN human rights report cited “unimaginable” rights violations in Libya, describing the situation for migrants in the situation as a “human rights crisis.”
Despite being partners in the Libya plan, the UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM) issued a joint statement the day before the Malta summit warning of “deplorable conditions” in Libya, stating it was “not appropriate to consider Libya a safe third country nor to establish extraterritorial processing of asylum seekers in North Africa.”
Speaking at a press conference immediately after the Malta summit Tusk toned down his rhetoric, claiming that the Libya deal would “help reduce the number of irregular migrants and save lives at the same time,” while referring to the Italian-Libyan memorandum of understanding as “another important and encouraging sign that things are about to change for the better.”
The Libya deal does not stop with Libya. The EU is trying to step up cooperation with neighboring countries, both in an attempt to establish other routes of return and safeguard against a diversion of migration routes because — according to the “whack-a-mole” theory of irregular migration — when one route closes, another one opens.
Reuters reported last week that EU officials are offering Egypt and Tunisia eased visa restrictions for its citizens as well as additional economic aid in exchange for eased deportations of “unwanted African migrants.” But both countries will likely ask for significant benefits before accepting. Tunisia does not want to become a destination country for migrants, with Europe-bound departures steadily decreasing over the past few years and the country’s current economic priorities with African countries meaning that readmission agreements with its neighbors will not go down well. Egypt historically is against hosting refugee camps on its territory, and is more likely to request significant assistance with security and socio-economic development instead.
If the last 18 months of migration policy developments in Brussels are anything to go by, the EU may be willing to oblige.
In June, the EU’s Partnership Framework recommended that migration controls become the primary foreign policy priority in EU dealings with third countries, using a series of supposedly tailor-made action fiches to funnel development money towards partner countries and reduce migration towards Europe at the same time. In reality, most of the deals follow the same general pattern — emphasizing returns and readmissions (or incentivizing hosts to maintain large refugee populations as in Jordan and Lebanon), meanwhile demoting the importance of rights safeguards.
The year before, the Valletta Summit set another precedent by establishing the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Sources inside Valletta meetings recounted how some EU policymakers had threatened to cut development funds to African countries if they did not accept readmissions. Aid groups were concerned that development money was being used as a bargaining tool, or even to fund security-focused border management projects.
The implications of returning migrants to Libya are all too obvious. But engaging with Egypt and Tunisia could also trade in the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants: it can be argued that neither countries have the proper legal infrastructure for adequately protecting the rights of migrants; meanwhile, Tunisia and Egypt have a track-record of administratively detaining and forcibly deporting non-nationals — in some cases, to unsafe transit or origin countries.
And yet a lot of the rhetoric around the Libya deal has gone in the opposite direction, with the European Commission hailing the “opportunity to reaffirm European values” and “defend the tolerance, solidarity and openness that Europe is built on.” In reality, Europe is pursuing short-sighted migration deals with third countries that show less and less regard for human rights safeguards, proper asylum procedures, or even international law. Migration crises are an ongoing phenomenon across the world. Unless the EU is serious about tackling the root causes of these crises by pushing for diplomatic and political peace agreements in Libya and others, then the most vulnerable will continue to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean.
Tom Rollins is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.