Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The EU's flawed approach to Mediterranean migrant flows

The EU's flawed approach to Mediterranean migrant flows
Published 14 Jun 2016 

Last weekend, the Italian coast guard rescued 1348 refugees at sea in one day between Sicily and Libya. This rescue comes after more than 700 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy in one week in May, the highest weekly death toll since April 2015. While refugee flows to Greece are slowing considerably, 48,514 people have arrived in Italy by sea in 2016, roughly the same amount as in the same period last year. Flows will likely surge over summer, historically the time when most economic migrants and asylum seekers attempt to cross.

Over the past year, this crisis has rapidly become the largest and most complex migration issue facing Europe since World War II, and has exposed deep divisions between member states. The European Union has, in the words of the European Council on Foreign Relations, 'fallen short of taking responsibility for this as a collective problem, leaving the southern member states on the front line and able to offer only stopgap responses'. Said responses have had little effect or will prove hard to enforce. 

First, there was the European Commission's announcement of an emergency relocation proposal in September 2015. Under this mechanism 120,000 refugees from Italy, Hungary, and Greece were to be relocated to other member states. Currently, only 7940 places have been made available, and only 2031 have actually been relocated. With the main route through the Balkans closed, stranded refugees in Greece are stuck in a humanitarian crisis. In March, a migration control deal with Turkey was agreed under which all migrants in Greece not in need of international protection would be returned to Turkey. At the same time, for every Syrian returned to Turkey, the EU would take one Syrian refugee. While this deal has been successful in stemming the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea, it is facing logistical and legal challenges. [fold]

The current EU migration strategy is underpinned by a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of current migration flows. Research shows that the current refugee flows are driven by political instability and economic insecurity in Europe's immediate neighbourhood. According to UNHCR, 89% of irregular sea arrivals in Greece in 2016 come either from Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq. 

A similar case can be made with regards to the conflict in Libya, although the dynamic of the refugee flow here is quite different. Libya has long been a transit country for refugees. Most irregular sea arrivals in Italy from Libya come from sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing war and poverty. Libya's current political crisis has had dire economic consequences, making some local communities even more dependent on smuggling. According to the head of the European Union's Mediterranean naval mission, people smuggling was estimated to account for between 30% and 50% of gross domestic product in northwestern Libya. As Franziska Brantner and Mattia Toaldo from the European Council of Foreign Relations argue, 'the question today is what kind of deal Europe can offer the border communities that are making a living from illegal traffics, including the smuggling of human beings?'

The EU's policy of containment, restriction, and determent of refugees appear to matter little to those deciding whether or not to make the trip to Europe. Border fences, detention and turning back boats at best divert the flow of migrants but crucially do not break the smugglers' business model that is built on an imbalance between supply and demand. In this sense, the policy suffers from the same economic flaws of the war on drugs of the last three decades. This weekend, Libya's Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj rejected a Turkey-style deal, refusing to accept migrants picked up at sea back into Libya. This decision further calls the feasibility of the EU's strategy into question. 

A realistic policy that addresses the crisis in Libya and the war in Syria face serious political obstacles and require the kind of commitment Western countries are weary of after almost two decades of intervention and nation-building. As the Overseas Development Institute has argued, taking 'the oxygen out of the smuggling market through a large-scale global resettlement programme, safe transit and orderly processing of asylum claims' means facing a number of genuine challenges both in policy and practical terms. Even if these can be met, the biggest hurdle in instituting a more effective response remains political. Migration and asylum seeking are highly sensitive issues in many European countries. Divisions within Europe will likely continue to reduce the EU response to the lowest common denominator. Unless member states are willing to spend the political capital on a coordinated approach based on access to protection and respect for human rights, this summer will demonstrate that the refugee crisis is unfortunately far from over. 

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/Italian Navy


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