Saturday

25th Feb 2017

Opinion

Stopping the wave of asylum seekers means fixing Libya

Picture Maracana, Rio de Janeiro’s flagship stadium, which paid host to this year’s World Cup final. One of the largest stadiums in the world, it has a capacity of almost 79,000.

Now picture the same stadium filled almost to the brim with people in ragged clothes, covered by the marks of war, hardship and famine.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Libya has never really recovered from the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi (Photo: AslanMedia)

They are the asylum seekers, refugees and otherwise illegal migrants that have so far been saved at sea by Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea since late 2013.

Prompted by the tragic Lampedusa disaster, where 366 migrants sailing from Libya’s Misrata port lost their lives trying to escape from their home countries of Somalia, Eritrea and Ghana, this naval operation represents Italy’s rethink of the former ‘cruel to be kind’ policy.

Indeed, before the Libyan invasion of 2011, Rome’s standard approach to asylum seekers touching down on its soil or skirting its territorial waters had been to deport them from where they came – usually Libya, the traditional crossing point for a majority of would-be African immigrants.

After Gaddafi’s fall though, as the country has inched closer and closer to the status of failed state, such a policy became synonymous with a death sentence. Even the UNHCR has qualified this relentless migration as a "colossal humanitarian catastrophe".

With the ‘boat season’ almost underway, initial figures published by Eurostat show a dramatic increase in the number of asylum requests – the figure has almost doubled between 2008 and 2013 (226,330 to 435,385), on top of the approximately 1.7 million refugees already registered and living within the bloc.

The number of rescued migrants off the coasts of Italy is expected to grow almost tenfold in the next few years, with between 400,000 and 600,000 people currently waiting in Libya for their turn to cross the often treacherous Mediterranean waters.

Equipped more with hope than sea-savviness, most of them will use shanty dinghies run by human-traffickers that lack any kind of navigational instruments to reach either the shores of Malta or Italy’s forward island outpost of Lampedusa.

But why has this happened? Mainly because Libya has never recovered from Gaddafi’s overthrow. Essentially, the country is standing on the edge of the precipice – the authority of the central government extends only a few hundred kilometres around the capital of Tripoli, hampered by the tribal structure of the country, which left rudderless, acts as an obstacle to any form of state control. Not to mention General Haftar’s havoc-wreaking armies in the country’s east.

Libya’s southwestern tip in the Sahara, close to the Algerian and Nigerian borders, acts like a revolving door for illegal migrants from Africa on their way to Europe.

According to Mohamed Abdel-Qadir, head of Ghat's town council, a border town: "The border is open day and night. Anyone who wants can cross it. There is no control, most (smugglers) are armed, some of them drug dealers, some trade in weapons, goods and illegal migrants."

The decay in the traditional structures of power has turned Libya into a hotspot for crime and regional instability, with brigands and weapon dealers shuttling to and fro North Africa without being stopped by the almost disbanded Libyan border police.

More Brussels, but not as you would think

European leaders haven’t been too keen on finding a political solution for Libya up to this point, focusing more on Iran, Syria and, of course, on their own internal problems. But this dismal picture should worry them, as the migratory situation will only grow worse and could ultimately lead to a marked reverse in European integration.

Both Italy and Malta have called on Brussels to come to their rescue, as the burden becomes too heavy for the two countries to bear. Presently, the 2003 Dublin Regulation maintains that the country of first entry is responsible for processing asylum requests.

The regulation was meant to create a one-applicant one-application system and reduce the number of migrants moving from country to country. Unfortunately, it put too much of a strain on the most exposed countries (Italy, Malta, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria), which started ducking the system by allowing refugees to travel elsewhere in the Union.

Sadly, any asylum-friendly reform is bound to be scuttled by the prevalent Eurosceptic feeling. Brussels would more likely offer monetary assistance to its most exposed members rather than replace the Dublin Regulation with a common migration policy, which would install a quota system to allocate migrants across the member states.

But what if we were to turn the debate on its head? Instead of seeing this as an internal affairs matter, what if we were to reframe it as a foreign policy problem? Since any radical change in asylum policies is off the table, European leaders should address the core issue – in this case, Libya.

Fixing Libya

Usually described as an unsolvable political conflict because of the different warring tribes that have rejected Tripoli’s authority, Libya could be rescued from its conundrum by its pre-Gaddafi Senussi dynasty.

Libya’s foreign minister even outlined these ideas in a recent comment, arguing that this is the only way to restore stability and pacify the country, as the Senussis still enjoy the support of Libya’s tribes.

Indeed, Libya’s stability before 1969 came from its system of constitutional monarchy, largely based on the British system. Thanks to its influence among the Arab population, a Senussi king would serve more as the symbol of the state, while the Parliament and the Prime Minister were tasked with actually ruling the country.

European leaders could pretend that Libya is not their problem, but left unaddressed it will become everyone’s problem – uncontrolled migration is just one of many potential challenges.

Since deploying boots on the ground is the least desired outcome, perhaps Brussels should engage in a constructive dialogue with the Tripoli government and support the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Because, left to its own devices, Libya has all the makings of a failed state – and if that were to happen, there wouldn’t be stadiums large enough to contain the fallout.

The writer is a Geneva-based economist.

Libya: hounding of migrants must stop

Sub-Saharan migrants in Libya face appalling treatment. But despite its fine words, the EU's sole concern is to keep them out of Europe.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Searching for a voice and a standard bearer

As Britons come to terms with the reality of Brexit many Remainers are now listless, looking for someone to present a viable alternative to Theresa May's dominance

The crisis we face in the Lake Chad Basin

With no end in sight to this crisis, humanitarian actors must call for concerted engagement of political, developmental and security actors to help stabilise the region, writes the head of the UN migration agency.

News in Brief

  1. Spanish court jails former IMF chief Rato
  2. Macron proposes Nordic-style economic model for France
  3. Germany posts record high budget surplus
  4. Labour ousts Ukip in Brexit homeland
  5. Dutch lower house approves EU-Ukraine treaty
  6. WTO says Russian pork ban was illegal
  7. Belgian nuclear plant made 'significant progress' on safety
  8. Report: Commission gauging EU support for Poland sanctions

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EURORDISJoin Rare Disease Day and Help Advocate for More Research on Rare Diseases
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceStudents Who Are Considered Fit Get Better Grades in School
  3. QS World MBA TourMeet with Leading International Business Schools in Paris on March 4th
  4. Malta EU 2017Economic Governance: Agreement Reached on Structural Reform Support Programme for Member States
  5. Socialists & DemocratsWomen Have to Work Ten Years Longer to Match Lifetime Earnings of Men
  6. Counter BalanceTrans-Adriatic Pipeline Is a Major Risk for Banks, Warns New Analysis
  7. Martens CentreEU and US Migration Policies Compared: Join the Debate on February 28th
  8. Swedish EnterprisesTechnology and Data Flows - Shaping the Society of Tomorrow
  9. UNICEFNearly 1.4 Million Children at Risk of Death as Famine Looms Across Africa and Yemen
  10. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Fees: Council Reaches Agreement on Wholesale Caps
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Innovation House Opens in New York to Help Startups Access US Market
  12. Centre Maurits CoppietersMinorities and Migrations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Salzburg Global SeminarThe Child in the City: Health, Parks and Play
  2. UNICEFNumber of Ukrainian Children Needing Aid Nearly Doubles to 1 Million Over the Past Year
  3. Centre Maurits CoppietersThe Situation of Refugee Women in Europe
  4. Salzburg Global SeminarToward a Shared Culture of Health: Charting the Patient-Clinician Relationship
  5. European Free AllianceAustria Should Preserve & Promote Bilingual and Multinational Carinthia
  6. Martens CentreShow Your Love for Democracy! Take Part in Our Contest: "If It's Broken, Let's Fix It"
  7. CISPECloud Computing Leaders Establish Data Protection Standards to Protect Customer Data
  8. Malta EU 2017Landmark Deal Reached With European Parliament on Portability of Online Content
  9. Belgrade Security ForumBSF 2017: Building a Common Future in the Age of Uncertainty
  10. CESIEU Not to Revise the Working Time Directive
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAzerbaijan: 76 NGOs Urge the EU to Use President's Visit to Insist on Human Rights Reforms
  12. UNICEFDeadliest Winter for Migrant Children Crossing the Central Mediterranean