This summer marked an evolution in the joint European response to increasing irregular migration from Africa. Europe shifted from a positive agenda of partnerships with Africa to one of “Fortress Europe” which outsources push-backs of migrants and refugees to Libya and other countries of origin.
Until recently, the agenda was the one defined at the Valletta summit between Europe and Africa in November 2015 when the plan was to convince countries of origin and transit to curb irregular migration in exchange for a mix between capacity-building programmes, development aid, trade agreements and incentives for voluntary returns of irregular migrants. But as flows through Libya and into Italy continued to increase, the EU and Italy in particular pushed forward an additional set of policies which were enshrined first in the Malta declaration in February of this year and then in the restricted Euro-African summits in Rome in July and in Paris this week.
This new policy moves away from the positive agenda set in Valletta in 2015 and emphasises the repressive measures, effectively implementing a “fortress Europe” approach in which the main goal is to curb flows at all costs, including outsourcing to Libyan and African partners the implementation of indiscriminate push-backs of refugees and migrants alike, illegal under international law. With the build-up of the capacities of the Libyan Coast Guard and the arrival in Libyan waters of some Italian vessels, Italy assisted Libya in establishing its own Search and Rescue area. This means that migrant boats are “rescued” by the Libyans and brought back to the Libyan detention centres where not only there is no possibility to seek asylum in the EU but people are kept in inhumane conditions. More recently and starting in mid-July, flows have almost grounded to a halt. At the end of July, migrants who had arrived in Italy were almost half of those in the same month of 2016. Figures at the end of August this year show an even more dramatic drop of 81.7% as compared to August of last year.
An increasingly high number of media reports indicates that the main source of this drop is the payments by the Italian intelligence to armed groups, more or less affiliated with the recognised Libyan government but also accused of being connected to the people smugglers of the main ports of departure. If these payments were true, they would be problematic under several aspects. First of all, these militias could halt flows only temporarily and then ask again for money effectively putting European politicians, many of which face upcoming elections in Germany, Austria and eventually Italy, in the uncomfortable position of being blackmailed by Libyan warlords. Even if the payments happened, the payer would be the Italian intelligence and the armed groups would be only the final beneficiary after a number of passages in Libya. This means they will never be proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
But even if the Italian payments to Libyan militias never happened, the fact that flows have been halted by outsourcing pushbacks to Libyan warlords is highly problematic as it empowers the very same actors that fuelled the violence, anarchy and instability which cause so much suffering for Libyans and migrants alike.
Finally, should flows continue to remain low even in the coming weeks, this would leave Europe and the fledgling Libyan government to deal with a significant stock of migrants trapped in Libya or on route through Niger and Chad without either being able to proceed to Europe or get back home. During the summer, French president Macron had proposed the establishment of “hotspots” in Libya where migrants would be processed: those who did not qualify for asylum in Europe would be returned home. At the Paris summit this week, this idea was dropped in favour of “protection missions” in Chad and Niger to assess asylum applications. Whether this means establishing a UNHCR-managed system of safe resettlement of refugees directly from Africa to Europe is still to be seen. For the moment, the mood in Europe is to keep out as many Africans as possible.