Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Opinion

Europe's new migrant policy comes at a moral price

  • Brussels' solutions to the migration crisis - such as more money for holding camps - may cut the headline numbers, but thousands are still drowning. (Photo: Frontex)

The European Union has sought to absolve itself of addressing what many of its leaders have described as the "migrant crisis" with a quick-and-easy-fix that will have—and already has had—severe consequences.

Its new containment policy deflects its own legal obligation to migrants onto the gatekeepers of popular migration routes like Libya, which is already struggling from a myriad of its own issues.

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On top of the rise of ISIS and other radical extremist groups, divisions between two warring governments and a crumbling economy, not to mention its own internally-displaced people, Libya has now been tasked with upping efforts to prevent migrants from reaching Europe by sea, as well as hosting them while they undergo preliminary review for asylum.

Last month, European leaders met with African leaders at a mini-summit in Paris to discuss incorporating more countries with major migrant travel routes into its containment policy. Like Libya, the EU is now providing Niger and Chad with funding to host migrants in camps and asylum centers, in addition to more funding for border controls.

Unsurprisingly, the bloc's attempts to expand its new approach towards migrants have been met with criticism by human rights groups, who argue that it would unfairly burden Niger and Chad while doing nothing to address the underlying causes of migration. Most importantly, while Europe's containment policy may have curbed the number of migrants crossing over its borders in the short-term, it comes at expense of weak states – and the lives of migrants.

Dozens of migrants are feared dead after another overloaded boat capsized last week off the shores of Libya en route to Europe. Although the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean between January 1st to September 13th this year has dramatically declined (to 128,863 from 293,806 during the same period in 2016), some experts say that the proportion of those dying at sea has risen.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), if this trend continues, one out of every 50 migrants who try to make the journey will die. Last year that rate was one out of every 90 migrants.

The Mediterranean graveyard

Already, more than 2,550 refugees and migrants have died while making the dangerous crossing to Europe. This is largely the result of greater restrictions on international aid organizations operating in the Mediterranean, which means less search-and-rescue missions for capsized boats. Similarly, Italy's injection of funding into Libya's coast guards has pushed smugglers to take more dangerous routes with smaller, even more overcrowded boats.

Instead of focusing on a containment approach to the "migrant crisis," Europe must prioritise the development needs of the countries that these migrants feel compelled to leave as a strategy to curb the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, rather than leaving them stranded in countries like Libya—or worse, at sea.

Of course, one plan of action is already underway thanks to the efforts of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Inspired by the US Marshall Plan that helped rebuild the European economy after World War II through foreign investment, Merkel announced earlier this year a similar plan to help stimulate the African economy. The plan's backers argue that boosting aid and promoting private investment in Africa will help give aspiring migrants a reason to stay home. While the 'Merkel Plan' is a commendable start, simply pumping in money without finding ways to combat deeper issues won't be enough to truly make an impact.

A viable tactic Europe should pursue in addition to the 'Merkel Plan' would be reforming the global remittances market. In Africa, total revenues from remittances are higher than from foreign investment and aid.

One report claims that a 10 per cent increase in per capita remittances leads to a 3.5 percent decline in the number of people living in poverty. This is because for millions of Africans, remittances are a much-needed lifeline.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for reducing the cost of sending remittances to 3 percent, or 5 percent where there is no corridor.

Remittances come at a price

However, dominant money transfer operators like Western Union and MoneyGram charge high fees for migrants to send money back home to their families, and have exclusive agreements with local agents that drive the fees even higher.

This year, the average cost of sending remittances is 7.45 percent, far higher than the SDG target, and fees are highest of all in sub-saharan Africa. European leaders should pressure these firms to reduce fees and end anticompetitive agreements, which will maximise the impact that remittances have on developing countries. By injecting a larger proportion of migrants' hard-earned money into local economies, the EU could help improve economic conditions in host countries and drive down the pressure to migrate.

To be fair, both of these strategies are long-term, and it may take years before their impacts are felt. However, walling off Europe and deflecting its responsibility to countries like Libya is only a short-term, politically motivated strategy that will only end by endangering the lives of migrants.

Europe needs to understand that Libya does not have the capacity to humanely detain migrants as they await preliminary review for amnesty. It also needs to recognise that restricting international aid vessels from conducting search-and-rescue missions is immoral, even if it does limit the number of migrants reaching European shores. For a short-term strategy, Europe should shift from a strategy focused on turning Libya and other countries into holding zones to instead opening legal avenues for migration and helping to improve economic conditions in these countries.

Otherwise, migrants will only continue to find ways to cross the Mediterranean, even if it means in rickety boats, and even if it means a greater chance of drowning.

Dina Yazdani is a reporter for Fair Observer

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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