Addressing the issue of the Central Mediterranean Route

EPA-EFE/STRINGER

A migrant rests after he was rescued along with dozens of others in the Mediterranean, off the Libyan coast in Guarabouli, east of the capital Tripoli.

Addressing the issue of the Central Mediterranean Route


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Libya has been in turmoil ever since NATO’s Operation Unified Protector ended in 2011. Whilst it is widely agreed that a political solution is needed to bring stability to Libya, recent inter-militia clashes do not bode well for the immediate future. Meanwhile, migration continues to challenge the European project to precarious levels, whilst the EU Member States fail to act or act in an egocentric manner given opposing national interests, further compounding delicate stability in Libya.

If Europe aspires to control migration out of Libya, comprehensive win-win solutions must be found which address the interests of asylum seekers, Libya and Europe alike. Any courses of action should protect asylum seekers and dissuade economic migrants from heading to Libya through amicable means. But is this really possible? In my opinion yes, though Europe cannot continue tackling migration in a compartmentalized manner, but has to deal with the phenomena holistically, and here are my thoughts.

At the political level, the European Council must approve a strategy which deals with migration out of Libya, ideally penned by the European External Action Service (EEAS) with contributions from other relevant EU institutions and agencies; and Libya must be brought on board as a partner rather than being alluded to as the problem. This implies that the EU should emulate the positive experiences it gained in its Horn of Africa counter-piracy initiative.

In this case, the EU harnessed its diplomatic, development, and security instruments under one lead, an EU Special Representative. And to me, here-in lies the essence to the EU’s success story – one person, an empowered diplomat, led the charge, with all the tools at his disposition, to negotiate comprehensive solutions through a comprehensive approach.

The above proposal is much in contrast to how the EU dealt with the migration across the Mediterranean following the Lampedusa tragedy in 2013. We witnessed the European Commission leading Task Force Mediterranean from an internal and reactive manner, rather than taking a foreign policy approach, which would have fallen under the remit of the EEAS. The Commission’s initiative resulted in a series of disjointed initiatives led by the Member States and European institutions with the consequence that the central Mediterranean migration route remains open and unchallenged until this very day.

From the Libyan perspective, the country is challenged by its desert borders; and its vast coastline from which its maritime search and rescue zone extends northwards up to over a hundred miles, the zone in which Libya is obliged to action distress calls at sea. Blocking migration at Libya’s desert borders is not humanly possible, so Libya can only hope to reduce flows by dissuading migration through Libya, utilising out of the box solutions. Meanwhile, Libyan migration institutions and maritime agencies need to be strengthened, to continue performing Coast Guard functions effectively, especially border control and search and rescue. So how could the EU and Libyan partner up to address the migratory phenomena?

I contend that once an EU Libyan strategy is devised, an EU appointed Special Representative or similar with Ministerial authority, should lead the EU initiative, synchronising efforts with Libyan and UN agencies, possibly following the below-mentioned recommendations:

Establish EU Asylum Processing Centres, possibly even at sea

Migrants rescued at sea should have their asylum applications processed in EU Asylum Processing Centres in Libya, under the lead of the European Asylum Support Office, with the support of UNHCR, and under Libyan oversight. If land-based facilities are deemed unsafe, the EU should consider processing asylum applications aboard decommissioned cruise liners in coastal waters. Migrants warranting possible asylum would be transferred to Europe for further filtering and relocation in a fair and equitable manner through a second cruise liner, or naval amphibious ships.

Repatriate Economic Migrants rescued to Countries of Origin

Economic migrants rescued at sea and failing the asylum process should be encouraged to return home in an amicable manner. That could be accomplished by offering financial incentives upon return to their countries of origin through EU delegations. This would offer financing for business start-ups in sub-Saharan Africa, thereby facilitating entrepreneurship in the continent. The UN’s International Organization for Migration could support this process, and return flights could be organised by FRONTEX.

Enable Libyan maritime agencies to conduct effective maritime operations

The EU would continue to assist the Libyan Government in conducting effective border control and search and rescue operations, through two direct lines of action:

  1. Capacity Building: EUBAM Libya would take on an expanded role by continuing to support Libyan maritime agencies conduct maritime surveillance and interdiction operations, possibly even through the chartering of aerial and maritime means registered in Libya. This would allow Libyan officials to enforce Libyan law at sea with direct EU support.
  2. Enforcement and Rescue: Whilst Libyan offshore capabilities are in the process of being equipped and developed, EUNAVFOR Sophia would continue to support the Libyan effort by exchanging maritime surveillance information, alerting Libyan authorities of suspicious movements, or distress situations within Libyan search and rescue zones, as is probably happening already.

I contend that the above proposals, although certainly ambitious, are well within the EU’s ability to accomplish because Europe possesses the instruments which can offer win-win solutions for:

  • Those eligible for international protection, who would avoid the perilous Mediterranean crossing;
  • Economic migrants intercepted after departing Libya, who would receive a financial package, allowing them to invest in some business upon repatriation;
  • Libya, which would be commended for its humanitarian efforts, also becoming a more stable country that is able to control its maritime zones;
  • Europe, which would experience a substantial reduction in migrant arrivals, whilst offering international protection to those in need.

To conclude, we have to question whether it is politically safe for the EU to allow mounting pressures to continue. We are witnessing the increase of far-right movements throughout Europe, but particularly frontier states. As politics have escalated to policies, there is now a threat to veto other EU policy areas, including EU funding. It is time for joint action in Libya, and EU institutions to bring Member States together, to address the migratory phenomena, through Libya, before the next migration seasons starts.

This season will coincide with European Parliamentary elections in May 2019, an opportune moment for far-right sentiments to be fortified if nothing is done. Key to activating such an ambitious plan would be to empower a senior European diplomat to spearhead the Libya-EU venture. But are the Member States really winning to prioritise common efforts to stabilise Libya and seek solutions to addressing migration? If not, are the Member States endangering the European project and postponing the inevitable? These are questions that officials in Brussels’ circles should be posing to one another.

 

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