Three years have passed since the peak of the European migration crisis, in which a historical record of 1.3 million asylum seekers entered Europe in 2015 alone. This dramatic influx left Greece and Italy, the most common entrance points for migrants, completely overwhelmed because, according to EU policy, the member-state in which a migrant first enters is responsible for processing his or her asylum claim.
After political deadlock and anti-immigrant sentiment stifled the EU’s attempts to find an internal solution, European leaders decided to pursue the “externalization” strategy: the use of non-EU countries as buffer states to stem migration flows. In March 2016, the EU and Turkey agreed upon a deal to block irregular migration from the “Balkan route,” which has drastically reduced the number of migrant arrivals to Greece.
Unfortunately, the closure of the Balkan route only shifted the main irregular migration route – movement within a country without the authorization or the requisite documentation – to Libya. Europe has attempted to adopt a similar “externalization” model in the North African country, despite massive human rights abuses committed against asylum seekers by both Libyan authorities and rogue militias.
As the chaos in Libya has continued to escalate this summer, the EU is faced with a crucial dilemma: Should it work to create a “safe and legal pathway” for migrants and refugees to flee Libya, yet risk domestic political instability? Or rather, should it continue to build its own wall of security and overlook the atrocities? Regrettably, European leaders have thus far made their answer clear: The EU will continue to prioritize its own border security at all costs – even if that means being complicit in facilitating severe human rights violations in Libya.
I believe that it is in Europe’s best interest to establish a robust legal alternative to irregular migration. Even though migrant arrivals have declined in recent years, the EU would be naïve to think that it has seen the last of a “migration crisis” – especially given the ongoing turmoil in Libya. The creation of asylum registration infrastructure within Africa would enable people to understand whether or not they would even be admitted into Europe as a refugee, thus sparing them a perilous journey through Libya and across the Mediterranean.
The EU-Turkey Statement
The EU must create a lasting policy to regulate the admission of migrants because the EU-Turkey Statement, the border externalization deal between Europe and Turkey, is unsustainable. The March 2016 deal between EU and Turkey established that all those who entered Greece illegally would be sent back to Turkey – regardless of whether or not they are refugees. The centerpiece of the deal was the “1:1 mechanism,” which holds that for every Syrian deported to Turkey from Greek islands, one registered Syrian refugee would be resettled from Turkey to the EU directly. In return, the EU agreed to pay Turkey 6 billion euro to improve the living conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, accelerate the removal of visa restrictions for all Turkish nationals, and reopen accession talks with Turkey over its EU membership. The deal paid immediate dividends, and by the end of 2017 fewer than 30,000 refugees and migrants arrived by sea in Greece – a remarkable drop of 97 percent from its peak two years prior.
Looking beyond the numbers, however, the EU-Turkey Statement has yielded more mixed results. First, the once-heralded 1:1 mechanism has failed to establish a consistent legal pathway to Europe for refugees, leaving tens of thousands of people still stranded on Greek islands awaiting their asylum registration. Second, Turkey’s President Erdogan’s recent turn towards authoritarianism has again shut down EU accession talks and delayed the EU’s promise of visa liberalization, jeopardizing not only EU-Turkey relations but also the legal qualification of Turkey as a “safe haven” for refugees. Third, the deal has given European leaders a false sense of security that a similar “externalization” strategy should be replicated elsewhere in the world – beginning with Libya.
The Pandemonium in Libya
The dire situation in Libya shows that a long-term solution to prevent irregular migration is urgently needed. The NATO-backed ousting of Muammar Gaddafi created a vacuum of power in Libya, with tribal warlords now dominating their respective city-states and running their own militias and smuggling networks. This chaos along with the closure of the Balkan route caused a massive wave of irregular sea crossings – largely composed of Sub-Saharan economic migrants – away from Libya. As the EU failed to rescue boats in distress, the Central Mediterranean soon became the deadliest migration route in the world.
To stop the flows, the EU and Italy agreed upon a 400 million euro border security deal with the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in February 2017. Yet behind closed doors, Italy also struck deals with the local militias to cease their smuggling operations. The results have been astounding: thus far in 2018, migrant arrivals to Italy have decreased by 70% from the previous year’s figures.
Nevertheless, history will one day condemn Europe’s cooperation with Libya.
Since no legal protection for refugees exists in the country, both Libyan authorities and rogue militias reportedly hold thousands of migrants indefinitely in detention centers. Escapees have revealed horror stories of enduring severe beatings, torture, sexual violence, and even auctions for slave trades. At the same time, the Libyan coast guard – which is still trained by European authorities – has repeatedly harassed NGO ships that launch search-and-rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean. The EU has sat by idly, having severely downsized its own SAR operations following harsh criticism both domestically and internationally for creating an unintended pull factor that encouraged further illegal migrations. As a result, thousands of lives have continued to be lost at sea each year from migrant boat shipwrecks, and tens of thousands of migrants and refugees are still trapped in Libya with little hope of freedom.
The ongoing civil war in Libya has certainly illuminated the need to provide a more long-term solution to the migration crisis. Even if arrivals have quieted down, another wave of irregular migration will occur in the future if the underlying push factors are left unaddressed. The EU must realize that offering asylum seekers a viable legal alternative to irregular migration will save lives, disrupt smuggling networks, and alleviate European border pressure as a result. In the immediate term, Europe can work to establish asylum registration centers in the countries of origin to inform people about their refugee qualifications before they embark on a treacherous journey to the Mediterranean. By boosting economic opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa in the long term, the EU can help create a perception of future economic prosperity in the region and thus stem migration flows without having to construct unstable deals with warring militias or authoritarian rulers.