Since the controversial deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) in March 2016 has largely succeeded in preventing refugees from reaching Europe through the eastern Mediterranean route, EU decisionmakers have turned their attention to the central Mediterranean. With election dates approaching for several EU states, and amid heightened fears about new waves of migrants entering Europe in the spring, politicians are trying to find quick solutions to prove their ability to manage the crisis. In addition, the EU as a whole is pressed to formulate a broader strategic vision—beyond security fixes—capable of meeting the challenge. Despite conflicting agendas and policies, the EU is forced to look to North African nations for solutions.
EU efforts to reach agreements with source countries have not yet yielded results, with the exception of Niger with whom the EU was able to intensify cooperation since June 2016, sharply cutting the flow of migrants through Libya’s southern border from 70,000 in May 2016 to 1,500 in November. The lack of progress with source countries and the dire situation of migrants and refugees in Libyan camps—more accurately detention camps—has left Europe with few options. Some EU officials have proposed intercepting migrants en route and transporting them to detention centers in Egypt or Tunisia, from where they can apply for asylum. Others have suggested threatening to scrap trade deals with source or transit countries that are too lax in helping Europe. Human rights groups criticized the suggestion as an attempt to outsource the crisis to the countries along the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
In addition to Tunisia and Egypt, there have also been a range of proposals targeting Libya. The country currently represents the primary starting point for those crossing the Mediterranean, with 90 percent of Europe-bound migrants leaving from its shores. After receiving the rotational presidency of the EU in the beginning of January, Malta called for an agreement with Libya modeled on the March 2016 agreement with Turkey to stop the influx of migrants. Under Malta’s plan, European vessels would patrol closer to Libyan waters, where they can increase cooperation with the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrants’ boats and return them directly to Libya. However, this initiative was opposed by the European Commission, which argued that the circumstances in Libya differed too much from those in Turkey.
Instead, the commission announced a different plan on January 25—backed by European leaders at the Malta Summit on February 3—to negotiate with the Government of National Accord (GNA) to stop migrants from departing via Libya. The proposal aims to either return migrants to their home countries or give them protection and stability in third countries outside Europe. The leaders also announced their support for an Italian-Libyan Memorandum of Understanding on migration signed on February 2. The MOU stipulates that Italy will provide money, training, and equipment to support the GNA in managing borders and enhancing the capacities of Libyan coast guard.
The new EU plan includes a call to develop the Libyan coast guard’s capabilities by providing training and the necessary equipment to monitor the borders and target smugglers’ supply lines, and to help Libya protect its southern borders by spurring regional security cooperation in the Sahel. Meanwhile, the EU is seeking to coordinate with Libyan municipalities and international organizations—namely the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization on Migration (IOM)—to develop return and readmission programs for migrants not in need of protection and to improve protection and humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers and facilitate their integration into the local economy by creating jobs where they are concentrated. The most vulnerable would retain the possibility of moving to Europe.
The Libya-specific plan also faces a number of practical and political challenges. Several organizations, including the UNHCR, have criticized it for not offering asylum seekers realistic alternatives to relocation to safe countries, which would be a failure on the part of the EU member states to fulfill their commitment to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The UNHCR further affirmed the need to distinguish between different motivations for migration and warned against the risks of returning refugees to their home countries.
The European plan is based on cooperation with the GNA and Libyan municipalities, but Libyan disagreement over the European proposal could potentially throw a wrench in the plans. With three different governments struggling for power in Libya, the GNA has limited ability to control all of Libya’s territory and safeguard migrants. While Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the GNA, has stated Libya is ready to cooperate with Europe as long as any agreement respects Libyan sovereignty, municipal officials have rejected this agreement, arguing that keeping the migrants bottled up in Libya would deepen the country’s crisis.
Moreover, European cooperation with the GNA in Libya could simply reroute migration and smuggling paths from neighboring countries, which will force all North African countries to take preventive measures and increase border security. This draws attention to how the migration issue intersects with these countries’ domestic and foreign policies. On the regional level, the EU plan aims to intensify cooperation between Tunisia, Egypt, and Algeria to obstruct other migration routes in North Africa. Europe intends to help these countries draft comprehensive migration policies including asylum laws and to boost their capacity to provide protection and humanitarian aid for migrants. Helping Libya’s neighbors improve conditions for refugees will later enable the EU to classify these countries as safe third countries—that is, countries where refugees and asylum seekers can be relocated and where they are provided international protection.
Tunisia could potentially become a safe third country that could help alleviate Libya’s heavy burden. In March 2014, Tunisia signed a Mobility Partnership with the EU as a comprehensive framework for discussions on migration-related topics. The partnership includes cooperation on legal migration, border management, and economic development to address the underlying causes of migration. In October 2016, Tunisia and the EU began parallel talks to draft two separate agreements to facilitate visas and readmission. Once finalized, the agreement on readmission will stipulate that irregular migrants be returned to their home countries or the countries from which they crossed before entering the EU. The EU hopes this will be a deterrent to those intending to cross via Tunisia. In exchange for Tunisia’s cooperation, Europe offers an incentive package that includes increased scientific and cultural exchange between Tunisia and Europe, modernizing institutions of higher education and vocational training, and continued support for Tunisian security agencies.
However, Tunisia is resistant to becoming a safe third country, and EU proposals to establish migrant camps have faced pushback. In November 2016, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui announced that Tunisia would not accept to be turned into a migrant center as a solution for “problems that do not concern it.” There are several reasons for this opposition. Tunisia is neither a major source of migrants nor a major transit country. The number of people leaving by sea from Tunisia has been steadily declining over the last few years, down to around 900 in 2016. Only about 0.5 percent of migrants who crossed the central Mediterranean route in 2016 left from Tunisia, and so migration has slipped off the Tunisian political agenda. Tunisia’s refusal to be turned into a migrant center also stems from security-related fears. The country is already dealing with terrorism, smuggling, and returning foreign fighters, and is not interested in adding another burden to its overstretched security apparatus, particularly when it has already largely succeeded in reducing the number of irregular migrants.
Meanwhile, Tunisia is seeking to enhance its relations with the rest of Africa, and in November 2016 Jhinaoui announced the establishment of embassies in Burkina Faso and Kenya, as well as five trade offices in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Jhinaoui, opening up to Africa will be Tunisia’s diplomatic priority for the near future. Therefore, forcing a dialogue with the sub-Saharan countries about returning their citizens would not be in Tunisia’s interests—particularly since prior experience has shown that readmission often presents a practical problem that could potentially hinder Tunisian diplomacy in the continent.
Several problems prevent the EU from offering a comprehensive vision of the migration issue, including lack of policy coordination among member states and the sheer number of actors, who often have conflicting objectives. In addition, failing to take into account the diverse types of sub-Saharan migration and migration-related economic activities in these countries only compounds the problem. Furthermore, an overemphasis on security elements such as border control and readmission has failed to incorporate other aspects of the issue and has so far hampered discussions with source and transit countries. Building this dialogue will likely be the most important challenge facing the EU and the North African states to reach a compromise that takes both sides’ priorities and interests into account.
Carnegie Endowment For International Peace