Europe’s Forgotten Crisis: Migration Across the Mediterranean

Main Image Credit Desperate voyage: migrants in an inflatable boat attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya. Image: US Navy / Wikimedia Commons

While Europe remains transfixed on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the migration crisis in the Mediterranean that has shaped much of the continent’s politics for the past 10 years remains in full swing.

On 25 October, Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni used her first parliamentary address to double down on the hard-line immigration policy she campaigned on. Since the election, her Brothers of Italy-led coalition government has felt empowered to take measures to block irregular, maritime migration across the Mediterranean and to quell migration from Africa. Meloni proposed banning humanitarian aid vessels in Italian ports and a naval blockade on migrant boats leaving Libya, a two-pronged approach designed to stop this popular route once and for all. Critics have questioned the practicality and morality of these extreme measures, with former Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo calling the proposed blockade a ‘non-starter’. Pope Francis called the exclusion of migrants, especially in Europe, ‘scandalous’ and ‘criminal’, making the Mediterranean ‘the world’s largest cemetery’.

Despite crackdowns and increasing hostility towards migrants across Europe, migrants continue to make the crossing from North Africa. Irregular migrants utilise three primary routes across the Mediterranean: the central route via Libya and Tunisia to Italy and Malta, the western route via Morocco and Mauritania to the Canary Islands and Spain, and the eastern route via Turkey into Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria. The central route remains the deadliest, with nearly 3,000 deaths since 2021.

Nevertheless, the Libyan route, facilitated by the continued instability in the country since the fall of the Qadhafi regime in 2011, remains popular, despite its perils both on land and at sea. A 2021 report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights documents ‘widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses against migrants in Libya’ that ‘are compounded by the lack of pathways to protection within and outside the country’. Migrants are compelled to accept ‘assisted return’ as a means of escaping horrendous conditions in detention centres, including ‘threats of torture, ill-treatment, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, extortion, and other human rights violations and abuses’. Once returned, many migrants face the same conditions that drove them to make the journey in the first place and embark again, across the hostile landscape of the Sahara. The death toll in the 9.2 million km2 of inhospitable sand dunes is hard to calculate. In August, 15 migrants were found in the desert near the Libyan-Sudanese border. In January 2022, about 1,000 migrants staged a sit-in at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, protesting against detainment conditions and human rights violations, only to be met with arrests and detention.

The Libyan route, facilitated by the continued instability in the country since the fall of the Qadhafi regime in 2011, remains popular, despite its perils both on land and at sea

Recent months have seen increased volatility for those making the journey. In early October, 15 migrants were brutally murdered, found dead and severely burned on the Libyan beaches near Sabratha. The deadly encounter seems to be the part of ongoing disputes between rival smuggling gangs, which culminated in smugglers opening fire on migrants and setting fire to their boat. The beaches near Sabratha also witnessed the drowning of 35 migrants in April when their small wooden boat capsized. The coastal region is not the only part of Libya that is dangerous for migrants; in September, 297 Egyptian migrants were found in a warehouse in Eastern Libya, including 90 children. Some described inhumane treatment, including verbal abuse, beatings and electrocution torture, as well as being deprived of food, phones, money and other belongings. They also reported a sojourn through a network of multiple warehouses and stays up to six months long.

EU policy has focused on Libya, the ongoing conflict there, and the country’s role in irregular migration since 2015; Operation Irini started in March 2020, and its predecessor, Operation Sophia, lasted from 2015–2020. While Sophia focused joint EU naval capability on rescue efforts and migrant traffickers, Irini’s mandate is a UN arms embargo on Libya and the monitoring of clandestine oil exports, aiming to promote peace and an eventual ceasefire. Alongside the EU and UN efforts, a network of non-state organisations has sprung up as official EU policies shifted from focusing on rescue to deterrence, including Open Arms and Doctors Without Borders.

Overall, EU intervention has been both haphazard and dubious. In 2019, the EU funnelled almost €300 million – much through UN agencies – into Libya to combat the stream of migrants across the Mediterranean. Troublingly, funds ended up in the hands of bad actors in ‘intertwined networks of militiamen, traffickers and coast guard members who exploit migrants,’ some with UN agency knowledge. More recently, in 2021, the EU allocated €15 million to supply the Libyan Coast Guard with patrol boats, despite the Irini embargo. This infusion came amid UN and other watchdog agency reports of human rights abuses and violations, illegal migrant detainment and dubious communications between Frontex – the EU border agency – and the Libyan Coast Guard.

The Libyan Coast Guard sits alongside non-state actors like paramilitary groups and people smugglers in its treatment of migrants. With intel from Frontex, the Coast Guard has successfully located, disabled and even destroyed migrant boats. Survivors of these operations are frequently detained, beaten and then sent to Libya’s notorious network of prisons and detention centres, where they face mistreatment, denial of food and healthcare, and violence at the hands of militia groups. Militias, with ties to or actively involved in human trafficking rings, allegedly conspire with Coast Guard officials to detain migrants at detention centres, where desperate migrants come into fresh contact with smugglers who entice them into further crossing attempts.

Even if Meloni’s Libyan blockade does prove successful, migrants will undoubtedly find other methods to get to Europe. While the journey from central North Africa to southern Italy may be one of the shortest routes, it is by no means the only one. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), clandestine routes through West Africa and the Canary Islands remain open and are flourishing even in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. A July 2022 report from the UNODC Observatory on Smuggling Migrants found that around 40,000 people have used the Atlantic Ocean route from West Africa to the Canary Islands. The report also found that migrants are making their way to the Canaries via Morocco, Mauritania, The Gambia, Senegal and the Disputed Territories of Western Sahara. In 2021, 22,316 migrants entered Spanish territory via this route, representing over half of irregular migration from North Africa to Europe.

Even if Meloni’s Libyan blockade does prove successful, migrants will undoubtedly find other methods to get to Europe

While it might be tempting to see this tangled web of state and non-state actors as an isolated Libyan problem, there is no escaping the role that EU – and especially Italian – funding has played in the training and capability of the Libyan Coast Guard. A October 2021 report documented violence and abuses, including the seemingly indiscriminate and deadly shooting of escaping detainees. Meanwhile, classified EU documents leaked in January 2022 expose the EU’s full knowledge and ongoing support for training and funding to the Libyan Coast Guard. Out of frustration at the ongoing political instability, it seems as though the EU has taken on an ‘any port in a storm’ mentality.

Migration has been one of the most significant strategic challenges for Europe in the past decade. In the face of increased small boat English Channel crossings and deteriorating conditions at the migrant processing centre in Manston in Kent, it is impossible to ignore the direct chain of events that links Libya, mainland Europe and the UK. As irregular migration continues to shape the continent’s politics – as evidenced by Meloni’s victory – Europe must change its approach. European responses have heretofore been tactical, focused on symptoms of the crisis, and ultimately ineffective. It is time for a change to a strategic approach that addresses the push factors in migrants’ home countries. A new approach must crack down on smuggling gangs, develop policies that target the root causes of conflicts in Libya and beyond, and combine effective humanitarian rescue missions in the Mediterranean with policing across the impacted region(s). If not, Europe faces the alternative of human suffering on an enormous scale in the narrow waters between Italy and Libya.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Anna Löfstrand

NextGen Programme Executive


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