North Africa, West Asia

For partners in managing refugee flows, don’t look to Libya

Current proposals for European cooperation with Libya to contain migration and refugee flows are ill-advised.

Wolfram Lacher
19 May 2016

Discarded shoes at a smuggler's shack on the beach near Zuwara, Libya. Mohamed Ben Khalifa /AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.Since the EU refugee deal with Turkey, European attention has begun to shift to Libya. With the end of winter, passages from Libya are on the rise again, and have already claimed several hundred victims in the past weeks.

In April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that the EU should work on reaching an agreement with Libya similar to the one with Turkey. Ahmed Maetig, a member of the Libyan Presidency Council formed in December 2015, recently declared in Rome that his government would be ready to commit to such a deal. 

Maetig’s proposal immediately triggered indignant reactions in Libya, and didn’t appear to reflect the position of the council as a whole. In any case, European politicians would be wise to ignore it. Sending back migrants and refugees to a country in civil war is indefensible.

Given Libya’s collapsed state, replicating the EU agreement with Turkey is unrealistic anyway. Assuming Libya’s new unity government survives, it will lack any capacity to control its borders. Nor can it be trusted to improve the catastrophic situation in detention facilities for irregular migrants, which largely escape central oversight and are partly under militia control.

There is also very little potential for other forms of cooperation with Libya on refugees and migration. Some member states are pushing to extend the EU naval operation Sophia to Libyan territorial waters or even onshore. This would require the approval of the unity government, which has not been forthcoming to date – and it is better that way.

The priority should be the re-establishment of state authority in Libya. As it is, the unity government stands on very shaky ground and is seen by many Libyans as a western puppet. It needs to counter that impression. European warships in Libyan waters – let alone European soldiers onshore – would considerably damage the government’s credibility in Libya. 

The search for partners in managing the refugee crisis was one of the main reasons why European governments tried to push through the agreement on a unity government as quickly as possible, to the detriment of its solidity. But containing migrant flows will not be among that government’s priorities.

The government is founded on a fragile agreement, and its room for maneuver is very narrow. It completely lacks loyal state security forces, and it has yet to gain control over a divided, partly collapsed bureaucracy. Provided the government is not torn apart by internal rivalries, it will be completely absorbed by the need to counter its political and military adversaries, and avert the country’s economic collapse.

By contrast, migration and refugee flows are not a threat to the government. It is unlikely to confront migrant smugglers, which would only add to its problems. Trying to get the government to act on migration, whether by exerting pressure or providing incentives, won’t work – nor would this serve the goal of helping the government succeed in its difficult task. 

Considering the central government’s weakness, an alternative approach to preventing the dangerous sea crossings would be to work directly with actors at the local level. These include local coast guard units or other security forces, which act largely autonomously due to state collapse. In many cases, they themselves profit from the business of smuggling migrants and refugees.

Could European money help block local smuggling hubs? Possibly. But this would mean cooperating with forces that are unaccountable to the state they claim to represent, and are notorious for human rights violations. Moreover, such an approach would not provide lasting solutions.

Libya is fragmented into innumerable local fiefdoms, and local power relations are themselves unstable. Arrangements with local forces would quickly falter as the local balance of power changes, and for every route that is blocked, two new ones are likely to open up.

The only practicable way to combat abuses and corruption is by gradually re-establishing state control – and this is only realistic in the medium term. Direct European cooperation with local forces could even end up obstructing the central government’s efforts to tighten chains of command.

Doing nothing is not an option, in view of the thousands of victims of failed crossings from Libya since 2014. But for solutions, Europeans will have to look elsewhere than Libya for the foreseeable future.

In the Mediterranean, the EU needs to do much more on rescue at sea, combined with an expansion of “hotspots” for initial registration in Italy and the faster repatriation of migrants who do not qualify for asylum. Along the refugee trails, more investment in structures of accommodation is necessary, beginning with the neighboring countries of crisis states such as Eritrea and Somalia.

The military approach, which would only cause political damage in Libya, should be replaced by a stronger focus on police work, to arrest Libyan migrant smuggling king-pins during trips to neighboring countries. And finally, legal avenues for migrants and asylum seekers need to be expanded to reduce the number of those willing to risk their lives in the passage to Europe.

This piece was first published on Der Tagesspiegel on 29 April 2016.

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