Myopic in Malta: Europe’s short-sighted migration policy with Libya

Melissa Phillips

Migration researcher and honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne and New York University Center for International Cooperation, based in Tunis

At last week’s EU summit in Malta, European leaders didn’t appear to have learnt many lessons when it comes to forging questionable deals to stem migrant flows. A migration partnership cannot be built on European self-interest alone. Convenient rhetoric and tropes do not form the basis of sound policy. Actions to send unwanted migrants out of mind and out of sight must take into account the local conditions that drive migration and smuggling networks or they are bound to fail.

In Valletta, member states made specific pledges aimed at stemming irregular migration on the Central Mediterranean migration route from Libya. The Italian government also made a separate migration deal with the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord and Chairman of the Presidential Council, Fayez al-Sarraj. Despite the self-congratulatory tone of post-summit press releases, including a blog from EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, there are several reasons to be concerned.

Other commentators have already remarked on the similarity between Italy’s current migration deal with Libya and Gaddafi-era agreements, the key difference being that the GNA lacks nationwide authority. This includes in the south of Libya, where the Malta Declaration states, ambitiously, that priority will be given to working with the Libyan authorities to reduce pressure on the country’s borders. Smuggling is an entrenched livelihood in the south, where the most recent evidence of alternate allegiances was a dramatic episode in December, when a plane that had been hijacked in the southern city of Sabha by pro-Gaddafi loyalists landed in Malta. The French have had a military base near the Libya-Niger border for some years that has had little success in policing border crossings.

It’s the economy, stupid

Addressing the root causes of smuggling in Libya, especially in the south, requires improved analysis of both the macro- and micro-economic benefits to Libyan communities and non-state actors. Yet there is almost no reliable, up-to-date evidence on the economic factors driving smuggling. An EU military taskforce commander suggested that locals in coastal towns are making annual profits of close to $300 million per year from smuggling, but there are no details about how this figure was calculated and who are the real beneficiaries from people smuggling.

An EU-funded crackdown on migrant smuggling through northern Niger – the route most migrants use to reach Libya – has reduced recorded movements of migrants through Agadez, but it has also pushed smugglers to charge higher prices for taking migrants on more clandestine and risky routes through the desert. Meanwhile, EU efforts to fund alternative livelihoods to replace the smuggling industry in Niger have had little discernible impact.

The Malta Declaration pledges to provide more training and support to the Libyan coastguard “to disrupt the business model of smugglers”. In reality, this is likely to mean more boats being intercepted in Libyan waters and their passengers sent to detention centres. The plot thickens when you consider that the bulk of immigration detention centres in western Libya come under the authority of the Ministry of Interior of the GNA.

Conditions in the centres have repeatedly been described as inhumane, most recently by the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) which documented numerous abuses. The Malta Declaration states that the EU will “seek to ensure adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants, together with UNHCR and IOM”. It is unclear if this means providing more funding to GNA-run detention centres, a practice that has been strongly criticised by human rights groups. Relying on UNHCR and IOM to ensure adequate monitoring will be challenging until they and other UN agencies and NGOs can return to Libya from Tunisia, where they mainly remain due to security constraints.

In a joint statement last week, UNHCR and IOM made it clear that they do not support Libya’s use of automatic detention for migrants, and noted that “security constraints continue to hinder our ability to deliver life-saving assistance”.

Alternative ‘solutions’

The Malta Summit’s emphasis on “reception centres” is a missed opportunity to pilot alternatives to detention in the Libyan context. Fledgling efforts have already been made with Libyan civil society and government actors, supported by international organisations, to find alternatives to immigration detention. But in its eagerness to reduce irregular migration, the EU has shown itself to be out of step with global campaigns to make immigration detention a practice of last resort as well as local initiatives to foster a different approach.

The lack of a sustained international presence in Libya also means there is a deep misunderstanding of the situation inside the country. Migration is arguably not a major priority in Libya at present. The Malta Declaration makes a cursory reference to the need for stability in the country and pledges EU support before making clear that its true intentions remain fixed on the EU priority to reduce migratory flows from the country. The ‘solutions’ to these priorities draw on well-rehearsed rhetoric and false regret for loss of lives at sea.

For example, while Mogherini claims that the Malta Summit shows there is a “European way to managing migration flows”, the Declaration makes multiple references to “disrupting the business model of smugglers”. This is language taken directly from former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, whose government claimed that stopping boats was a humanitarian gesture to save lives.

Unless European leaders get serious quickly about tackling the root causes of northwards African migration and promoting viable long-term economic alternatives to smuggling, the Malta Declaration will be just another piece of paper in a litany of failed agreements with Libya.

(TOP PHOTO: Migrants in Al-Khoms detention centre in Libya. Tom Westcott/IRIN)

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