Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

EU migration policy at a crossroads: how to avoid being on the wrong side of history

Europe’s leaders are committed to ‘stemming the tide of migration’. They say they are protecting ‘the vulnerable’, yet history shows that the policies proposed will only increase migrant vulnerability. 

Roberto Forin
24 February 2016


Migrant workers at Egyptian-Libyan border. EC DG ECHO/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nd)

The author is a relief worker for a major humanitarian organisation and a migration expert. He has over ten years of experience working with displaced people in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and has recently conducted research on mobility in countries in crisis at the University of Oxford.

According to the EU and its key players, the solution to the European refugee crisis lies anywhere but inside the EU. More concretely, as the discussions over a proposed €3 billion deal with Ankara seem to suggest, it now lies in Turkey.

Unfortunately, the EU does not appear to learn from its mistakes. Although it frames its new collaboration with Turkey as an innovative joint response to an “unprecedented crisis”, there is nothing new about handing over migration management to a third country with a questionable human rights record. Indeed, doing so represents no more than yet another attempt to externalise EU migration governance within the Mediterranean region.

A little over a year ago, in November 2014, a similar agreement was under negotiation between the EU and several North African states. Then, the plan was to strengthen the ‘gatekeeper’ capacity of transit countries to intercept and contain irregular migrants. In addition, it aimed to create reception centres that would screen mixed migration flows and quickly return so-called ‘economic migrants’ to their country of origin.

This, in turn, built on a policy piloted in the early 2000s with Libya. First Italy and then the EU made deals with Muammar Gaddafi, the then leader of Libya, to secure the containment of migrants. The idea was to create a ‘buffer zone‘ around the EU’s borders that would stop migrants from even embarking on their journeys across the sea. Upon request of the Italian authorities, Gaddafi introduced severely restrictive migration measures against, in particular, Sub-Saharan migrants.

Counter-productive policy

Yet what remains largely unacknowledged by the EU is that this policy proved harmful for migrants, ineffective, and ultimately counter-productive. This is for several reasons. First, the new restrictions served to prevent many migrants from gaining a clear legal status in Libya, further institutionalising the systematic denial of their basic rights and their socio-economic marginalisation. Migrants thus became the prime targets of everyday discrimination, violence, and crime. As it was commonly known that they had no rights to invoke, they were systematically exploited by ruthless employers who, after months of unpaid work, would have them arrested by the police. The so-called EU effort to ‘fight against illegal immigration', then, in fact led to trafficking-like exploitation. Worse still, in the detention centres built with EU financial and logistical support, discrimination and exploitation turned into torture and ‘enslavement’, as was documented by several human rights organisations.

Second, control over migration flows became a powerful bargaining chip for the Gaddafi regime with the EU. The Libyan leader skilfully used the ‘myth of invasion’ to threaten Europe with “millions of migrants” that he would release to “turn Europe black”. He turned the migration tap on and off as he pleased, keeping the ‘migration issue’ as a constant threat in his negotiations. Does the EU really wish to see this repeated with Turkey? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already made similar threats, if reports relating the minutes of recent negotiations between him, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker are to be believed. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses”, Erdogan reportedly said.

Third, the policy in fact increased migrants’ desire and determination to get to the EU. Previously, Libya had offered attractive working conditions for many Sub-Saharan migrants, and quite often represented their final migration destination. Yet life in Libya became unbearable under this new policy, thereby increasing the incentives for migrants to try their luck elsewhere. As a result, and despite the dangers the Mediterranean sea crossing, many decided to move on toward safer third countries in Europe. This, in turn, only strengthened demands for the services of smugglers.

A dangerous deal

Now, as the details of this new deal between Turkey and the EU are being decided, the history of the Libyan case urges the EU to rethink the plan from scratch or, at the very least, be very cautious.

If it decides to proceed, the EU must make respect for the basic human rights of all migrants in Turkey, not only during their stay but also in situations of immigration confinement and deportation, an absolute requirement for any financial support. The right to family reunification should also be upheld, while migrants transiting through Turkey to reunite with their families in the EU should be able to do so through legal means and within realistic timeframes.

Alternatively, the EU could resist short-sighted containment strategies that put people’s lives on a hold, further disempower already vulnerable individuals, and make them even more prone to exploitation. Instead, migration policies could focus on the creation of viable opportunities for migrants. These would support their integration into local economies, either in Turkey, if they wish to remain, or in other destination countries.

The possibility of this new deal places the EU at a crossroads. It can either repeat an embarrassing chapter in its foreign policy history by turning a blind eye to the progressive disempowerment of already vulnerable groups. Or, it can choose to move away from framing migration as a problem, working instead to provide sustainable protection to vulnerable individuals, and to embrace mobility as an inherent part of today’s global processes of political, social, and economic change.

Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum. To err is human, but to persist in that error is diabolical.

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