Thursday

30th Mar 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.

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  • 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.

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