The worsening security situation in Libya, where forces loyal to the leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army are attempting to seize the capital city, could make conditions even more dire for migrants in the country, the European Union’s Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said at the Atlantic Council in Washington on April 8.
Libya is a main conduit used by traffickers to funnel migrants north onto Europe. Avramopoulos admitted that the conditions in migrant detention centers in the country, which drew international attention when a Somali man burned himself to death in November, are “a disgrace for the whole world.”
“No one wants this. Not the European Union, not the international community, and certainly not the migrants who end up there,” said Avramopoulos. He maintained that the EU is “doing everything we can to assist or evacuate people stuck there, but most importantly to avoid them ever being there in the first place.”
Avramopoulos placed blame for the migrant crisis on smugglers who attempt to get migrants into Europe through dangerous sea crossings in overcrowded or stolen ships. These “smugglers come back to the Sahel afterwards, using the criminal profits they make to traffic weapons back to the terrorist warlords of the Sahara,” he explained, adding that “these warlords feed off the smugglers and their conflicts create more migrants.”
Smugglers have sought to exploit the chaos that has prevailed in Libya since its longtime leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was ousted and killed in the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.
The security crisis has sharpened dramatically since Khalifa Haftar, the head of the self-styled Libyan National Army, called on his forces to seize control of Tripoli where an internationally recognized government is seated. Haftar’s forces are meeting stiff resistance from militias from the western parts of Libya, including the capital city.
Haftar’s assault has prompted an international outcry, including from the United States and the United Nations.
On April 7, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement that the United States was “deeply concerned” about Khalifa’s threat to Tripoli. “We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Pompeo said.
“This unilateral military campaign against Tripoli is endangering civilians and undermining prospects for a better future for all Libyans,” he said.
Pompeo added: “There is no military solution to the Libya conflict.”
The number of irregular migrants pouring into Europe has reduced since the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015. Avramopoulos said this was a consequence of coordinated European action.
Avramopoulos lauded the new policies of the European Union (EU), which “resulted in the overall lowest level of irregular arrivals in five years (in 2018), more than 90 percent below the peak year of 2015.” Through cooperation with North African states, such as Libya and Niger, “tens of thousands of migrants have been helped on the ground, both in their immediate needs, but also in [returning] if possible or [being resettled] if in need of protection,” he said.
On March 27, the EU decided to extend Operation Sophia — its mission to monitor the Mediterranean for irregular migrant crossings — although it importantly suspended the use of sea-based patrols, opting for just air surveillance. This move was reportedly to avoid a potential veto by the Italian government, which has already closed its ports to boats that have rescued migrants stuck at sea. Italy and Malta refused entry to a humanitarian aid ship with sixty-four migrants onboard on April 4, which remains stuck at sea. Avramopoulos said he had seen indications that the situation “will have a positive end” for this specific ship, but warned that Europe still lacks a coherent policy on what to do with future ships.
He said the EU is “putting pressure on all member states to do their part” to fulfill their “political responsibility” to help stop smugglers and assist people in need. He warned that member state governments “are accountable to the eyes of the international community and to the European Union, but also to these desperate people.” The EU is “not here to name and shame countries… but it is also our duty to put them in front of their responsibilities” to help people in need, he said.
The showdown over migration in the EU comes as member states prepare for EU parliamentary elections in May, which Avramopoulos described as “an existential moment for the future of Europe.” Although populist parties first began appearing in response to the financial crisis a decade ago, Avramopoulos conceded that concern about migration and security has fueled their rise across the Continent.
Despite claims from the populists that Europe remains under assault from waves of illegal migrants, Avramopoulos argued that European policy makers have made significant progress since the height of the migration crisis and the string of terrorist attacks in Europe over the last four years. New security measures mean that “anyone trying to cross our borders irregularly is identified, fingerprinted, and thoroughly screened,” according to Avramopoulos, while thanks to new cooperation and investment across Europe “no one posing a criminal or terrorist threat should be able to enter the European Union undetected or with false identities as has happened in the past.”
“If a red flag appears for one person arriving at a border crossing, not only will we be able to prevent that person from entering there, we will also be possible to prevent that person crossing [anywhere else],” he added.
Deeper cooperation and engagement with third countries, such as Turkey, Niger, and Morocco, has helped slow the number of irregular crossings, while the EU is working to “reform our asylum [system] to better offer protection to people who really need it for as long as they need it… [and] returning to their home countries those migrants who crossed our borders illegally and do not need our protection,” he said.
What Europe cannot do is keep its head in the sand while people suffer, Avramopoulos argued. “We need to offer them alternatives” to the dangerous journeys via smugglers. While the solutions may not be easy, he added, “we do not push people back into the sea.”
David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.