Stop stopping the Libyan migrants: Start asking why they are coming

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Rescuing refugees off the coast of Libya. [Frontex]

Today (3 February), EU leaders are discussing plans to stop people embarking from Libya from reaching Europe’s shores, the details of which seem unworkable, counterproductive and morally dubious, writes Imogen Sudbery.

Imogen Sudbery is the Head of the Brussels Office of the International Rescue Committee.

With elections on the horizon in many countries, European governments appear prepared to sacrifice not only Europe’s values but also its interests in order to keep people out.

High Representative Federica Mogherini insisted this week that unlike the US, the EU will not turn its back on refugees. But that is exactly what these proposals would achieve. Instead of trying in vain to seal Libya’s border, the EU should pour all its efforts into improving conditions for displaced people in countries along the route, addressing the root causes of flight and opening safe and legal routes to protection.

The International Rescue Committee is calling on European heads of state to make a pledge to welcome 60,000 vulnerable refugees, equivalent to the number of places withdrawn by the US, through a comprehensive and effective resettlement programme supported by all member states. These are not quick fixes, but they are the only way to save lives, undermine smuggling routes and ultimately ensure a just and effective migration policy.

In recent weeks, EU leaders have once again tasked the EU institutions with finding ways to cut off the Central Mediterranean route from sub-Saharan Africa through Libya to the EU- and quickly.

This is an impossible quest.

The EU cannot simply replicate its dubious recent modus operandi of outsourcing migration management to a country fraught with political problems, a judicial and political vacuum and its own humanitarian crisis which is only compounded by the arrival of migrants, nor can it send people back to what is patently not a ‘safe’ country.

Not allowing these minor inconveniences to stand in their way, in Valetta, EU leaders will discuss a series of actions that attempt to square this circle, including further training and equipping of the Libyan coastguard, as well as potentially the idea of joint patrols in territorial waters.

Essentially, the idea is to help the Libyans do what the EU cannot: return people rescued at sea to North Africa without offering them the opportunity to apply for international protection. Also back on the table are ill-considered plans for processing ‘hotspots’ in North Africa, despite the fact that there is unlikely to be majority support for this.

These proposals are morally wrong. They legitimise the rampant and well-documented human rights abuses against refugees and migrants and will likely result in a further increase in the thousands being held with impunity in detention centres who have already endured brutal treatment at the hands of smugglers, traffickers, criminal gangs and the authorities, including rape, torture and sexual violence.

The proposals are also unworkable. As it rolls out its new interests-driven policy of cooperation with third countries on migration, the EU is already waking up to the fact that countries like Libya have their own objectives and are not always willing to dance to their tune. The incentives for EU partners to deliver on politically sensitive issues like returns are low, especially as the EU appears to be only paying lip service to their interest in opening additional legal pathways to migration.

Finally, they are entirely counter-productive. Aid is being poured into narrow, short term border management and security objectives to stop people moving. Little thought is given the impact of restricting cross border mobility on livelihoods and longer term development goals in Africa.

No one seems bothered that this encourages third countries to commit violations of migrants’ rights. And few are discussing the growing evidence that the EU’s actions risk triggering a global race to the bottom: as third countries that play such a vital role hosting from Egypt to Pakistan pursue their own return agendas. Yet all these impacts fundamentally undermine the very objectives the EU is seeking to address, creating a protection void that will only increase the numbers of desperate people seeking to come to the EU.

Today’s summit is an ideal opportunity for the EU to come forward with concrete announcements to substantiate claims from EU leaders that our refugee policy is somehow different from that of the US. Instead of betraying its fundamental values and identity for short term goals, the EU should instead pour all its financial and political leverage into serious efforts to improve the protection framework for migrants and address violations of their rights in North Africa. IRC is one of the few international NGOs based in Libya and is well-placed to work to alleviate the plight of all those in need of humanitarian assistance.

Rather than calling on Libya to seal off its borders, Italy and the EU should focus on eliminating the need for refugees and migrants to make dangerous journeys to Europe in the first place by investing in the root causes of displacement; namely poverty and peace-building.

The EU’s partnership compacts with countries of origin and transit must be used to improve the lives of displaced people. And the EU must announce the immediate introduction of an expanded resettlement programme for refugees. These are not quick fixes, but they are by far the most effective – and most humane – way to manage this aspect of the crisis in Libya.

Further Reading

Libyan PM demands more EU money ahead of Malta summit

Libya’s western-backed prime minister has complained that his country is only receiving “very small amounts” from the EU, ahead of a key summit on the central Mediterranean migration route on Friday (3 February) in Malta.