EU leaders have agreed to a plan that will provide Libya’s UN-backed government €200 million for dealing with migration. This includes an increase in funding for the Libyan coastguard, with an overall aim to stop migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean to Italy.
Based on the perceived policy success of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal on stopping migrant boats reaching Greece from the west coast of Turkey, known as the eastern Mediterranean route, this deal is intended to have a similar effect on the central Mediterranean in 2017.
Following the EU-Turkey deal, the central Mediterranean became the main route to Europe with over 200,000 arrivals in Italy.
It should go without saying that Libya is an unsafe country. Most western states impose a travel ban on Libya, which is torn apart by civil war, and has not had an effective central government since 2011.
In December last year, a UN report stated:
The situation of migrants in Libya is a human rights crisis. The breakdown in the justice system has led to a state of impunity, in which armed groups, criminal gangs, smugglers and traffickers control the flow of migrants through the country.
The UN-backed government has tenuous control over the eastern region of the country. It is thought that up to 2,000 militias are active in Libya and currently rule the coastline. This includes Islamic State and several other jihadist and non-jihadist groups.
The situation in Libya is quite different from Turkey which, despite concerns about crackdowns on dissent following the attempted coup in 2016, has a relatively stable government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Libya is not Turkey
There are two fundamental differences between Libya and Turkey, when it comes to returning migrants.
First is the right to asylum. In Turkey, certain Syrian refugees have the right to apply for humanitarian protection to the Turkish government. The UN’s refugee agency is active within the country, meaning migrants can apply for refugee status there from any country of origin.
While Libya is a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, there is no asylum process for migrants to apply for asylum either to the government nor to UN. How can asylum and refugee rights be protected in Libya when there’s no ability to seek asylum there in the first place?
Second is the safety of migrants. It is frequently argued that stopping the boats will save migrants’ lives; 5,083 people died crossing the Mediterranean in 2016 across all routes. But we have no way of knowing how many die before they reach the Mediterranean.
In Libya, we have no official data on migrant deaths. A recent report released by the German Embassy in Niger reports that migrants have been executed at prisons run by smugglers. According to the report’s authors: “Witnesses spoke of five executions a week in one prison”.
Research conducted as part of the MEDMIG project found that 29% of respondents reported that they had witnessed the death of fellow travellers on their journey. The majority of these episodes occurred in Algeria, Niger and Libya, not while crossing the Mediterranean.
I have made similar findings in my current research. For the past month, I have been in Sicily interviewing migrants who recently arrived from Africa. I have looked in the eyes of young men as they tremble telling me about their experiences in Libya. For them, the nightmare is not the sea, the nightmare is Libya.
One man told me that he lived in Libya with his family when ISIL invaded and took over the region. He watched as ISIL soldiers shot his four year old daughter in Libya. Leaving Libya became an emergency and his family fled northward across the Mediterranean.
Without any way to track migrant deaths in Libya and other African transit countries such as Algeria or Niger it is not possible to know the number of migrant deaths in these countries. Some work has been done on this by the IOM missing migrants project that reports on en route deaths in Africa, but the numbers are thought to be gross underestimates.
The known levels of abuse and suffering of migrants in Libya suggest that it is possible that the numbers of migrant deaths are similar or possibly even higher, than the number of reported deaths in crossing the Mediterranean.
Beyond the risk of death, migrants face abuse, torture, labour exploitation, arbitrary detention, starvation, and sexual violence. In some cases, migrants do not choose to cross the sea to Italy, but are put on boats at gunpoint by captors who no longer want their labour or service. In other cases, migrants may be trafficked from Libya to Italy.
Alternatives to an EU-Libya deal
There are alternative ways that the EU could manage this large movement of people. One suggestion, put forward by the European Stability Initiative, calls for processing claims much faster in Italy by all EU member states, efficiently relocating accepted refugees across Europe, and quickly returning those whose claims are unsuccessful.
You may agree or disagree with this plan, but the point is that there are alternatives that could be more effective than forcing people to stay in Libya. These alternatives require further cooperation from a fragmented EU.
Forcing migrants to stay in Libya is not the same as forcing migrants to stay in Turkey. From the perspective of reducing migrant flows, it is clear that the EU-Turkey deal has been success with a reduction of migrants from 57,066 in February to 1,552 in May 2016.
Little is known about the consequences of the EU-Turkey deal on the migrants and refugees that remain in Turkey. My research from 2015 has indicated that the majority of migrants and refugees want to migrate onwards from Turkey for valid reasons, such as poor living conditions, unemployment, and the desire for safety and security.
Although these are valid concerns, they are not on the same scale of fear of execution, forced labour, or torture experienced by migrants in Libya.
People smugglers are not the problem
A key policy argument for keeping migrants in Libya is that it will protect them from falling into the hands of people smugglers.
But there is ample evidence that attempts to prevent human smuggling do not protect migrants. In my interviews, respondents most feared militia groups that kept them hostage, not migrant smugglers.
Without effective control of militia groups in Libya and a functioning asylum and judicial system protection for migrants is questionable.
It is clear that a solution is needed to assist Italy in bearing the burden of the large number of migrants arriving on its shores. Keeping migrants in Libya does not protect rights, save lives, nor humanely address this large-scale movement of people.
Research Fellow, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute.