By George Joffé
At the end of October, the Italian government announced that it would renew its agreement with over migrant control which it originally signed with the government of national accord in Libya in February 2017. A few days later, at the start of November, Greece – another ‘frontline state’ as far as migration across the Mediterranean is concerned – announced that it would deport all failed migrant asylum-seekers back to Turkey.
Both developments underline the continuing frustration that the frontline states feel at Europe’s ongoing inertia over finding an equitable and humane solution to the Mediterranean migrant crisis that the Union has had to confront ever since 2015. The United Nations, it is true, is planning a conference in Berlin in the next few weeks, but this is intended to resolve the domestic Libyan crisis, not the specific issue of migration there.
The frustration has been led by Italy’s rightwing government, dominated by its energetic former interior minister, Matteo Salvini. Now he may soon be back in government, buoyed by the Lega’s recent victory in local elections in Umbria. And that will bring back Italy’s sense of urgency at blocking off further migration across the Mediterranean with the renewed agreement – cooperating with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, funding the Libyan coastguard and lending it four patrol ships – at its core.
There are, however, questions that Europe’s leaders should be asking themselves about the ongoing migrant crisis. Is it really necessary to create ‘Fortress Europe’ in the Mediterranean and should Europe, even now, years after the crisis emerged, find ways to help Italy and Greece mitigate the enormous burden that migration has placed upon them?
After all, migration across the Mediterranean has dropped significantly, certainly as far as Italy and Libya are concerned. In December 2017, the UN’s High Commission for Refugees estimated that there were between 700,000-to-one million migrants in Libya; 90 per cent of them from Egypt, Sudan, the Sahel and West Africa. Only 10 per cent of them came from the Middle East; a mirror image of the situation in Greece. In that year, furthermore, 118,914 had crossed to Italy from Libya, according to the International Organisation for Migration, with 2,832 dying in shipwrecks – significantly less than the year before when 171,000 had taken the perilous crossing by boat. The figures dropped even more dramatically in 2018, with only 23,126 migrants arriving from Libya and have dropped further since.
All these statistics might suggest that the crisis is essentially over but this is not the case. Over the last six years, Italy has had to absorb 690,000 migrants and the number of people held in asylum centres has risen from 22,000 in 2013 to 182,000 by 2018. At the same time, asylum approvals have dropped dramatically whilst deportations have risen, as a result of the hard-line policies now adopted in Rome. In the past, Italy (and Greece) has implored its European partners to help share the burden, to general European disinterest, however, with the result – in part, at least – that Italians have become increasingly hostile to migrants and even to the European project itself. That is a consequence that surely should be a concern to Brussels, given the rightwing, anti-migrant drift in Eastern Europe as well.
The migration issue with Libya, however, has other pernicious consequences too. The contempt and racism with which migrants have been treated and the appalling conditions in which they have been held in Libya has led to unanimous condemnation throughout Europe. It does not, however, seem to have seriously disrupted diplomatic relations between the institutions of the Union, such as the External Action Service, or individual European states and Libya itself. Nor has there been overmuch concern about the degree to which the security crisis in Libya or its bifurcated governmental system have adversely affected their attitudes towards the situation of the migrants held there or of those seeking to go abroad. Thus, the accidental bombing of a migrant reception centre in Tajoura, close to Tripoli, at the start of July 2019, with fifty-three deaths caused outrage but little official reaction.
There has been another seriously adverse consequence of this failure of collective action for individual European states have now begun to adopt significantly different individual policies to the Libyan quagmire. Thus, while Italy has sought to stem migrant flows at source inside Libya itself, thus contributing to the construction of ‘Fortress Europe’, France has chosen sides in the domestic political and security scene there. Whereas Italy at least cooperates with the United Nations-recognised government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord and its head, Fa’iz Sarraj, France has chosen to support the House of Representatives, the parliamentary assembly in Tobruk and its government in al-Bayda, both under the effective control of Libya’s autocratic military leader, Khalifa Haftar.
It is thus directly involved in internal Libyan affairs and, given the detestation shown by militia leaders throughout Tripolitania towards Khalifa Haftar, also contributes towards domestic Libyan instability and insecurity which, in turn, worsens the situation of migrants marooned there. Paris will also have picked up some distinctly unsavoury allies as well, several of whom, the Egyptian and Emirati governments amongst them with Russia watching sardonically from the wings, are in breach of UN arms sanctions because of their air-support for Khalifa Haftar’s forces.
None of this augurs well for a positive and united European initiative to resolve the security crisis inside Libya or to provide a humane solution to the migration crisis there. Nor does it contribute positively towards the very real crisis inside Italy over its growing resentment at Europe’s neglect of the social consequences it faces as a result of the years of collective European indifference that have elapsed since the migrant crisis exploded along its southern shores. Surely the time has come now for the new Commission in Brussels, together with the European parliament elected last May, to actively counter this neglect by finding a collective solution to the problems of the frontline states!