Strong partnership with North Africa lacking but necessary in Europe’s refugee response

By Luca Orfanò

When on 3 October 2013, a boat carrying migrants from Libya to Italy sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, the entire world witnessed the ineptitude of the world’s richest continent in front of a group of terrorized and desperate refugees. That night, more than 350 women, children and men lost their lives. That tragedy upset the conscience of many Europeans, meanwhile EU authorities started to see migration from a new point of view. Instead of analysing migration phenomena as a mere ‘security problem’, the European Commission realized how deep and complex the issue of refugees’ massive outflow was. For a moment it was seen as a humanitarian problem that required an approach based more on ‘foreign policy strategies’ than on ‘security means’.

In the aftermath of this Lampedusa tragedy, the Italian government launched the naval operation Mare Nostrum. This search and rescue mission led by the Italian Navy had the twofold purpose of safeguarding human life at sea and bringing to justice human traffickers and migrant smugglers. However, the rescue mission saved migrants in Libyan waters well beyond Italian territorial waters. This mission became highly unpopular because of its high cost of operation, but it saved thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean. Its results are certified by several international organizations which also highlight the human value of an operation that aimed not only at securing borders but also at searching and rescuing people in external waters.  One year later, on 30 October 2014, Frontex’s Operation Triton replaced Mare Nostrum.  The latter is a border control operation involved in patrolling missions and requiring fewer resources. Notwithstanding the ever-increasing number of refugee and migrant deaths at sea since the start of Triton operation, it persists and there is no intention to fund other activities.

This short exposition of measures undertaken by EU authorities demonstrates a U-turn in approach. Mare Nostrum was a military and humanitarian operation behind which there was a deep awareness of the gravity of the situation that went well beyond a matter of securing borders. However, with Triton, the European Union deliberately decided to close its eyes to the tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, taking care only of closing its southern borders, blind to what was happening on the southern shores of that sea. Clearly, it was the renewal of the ‘security’ approach – despite the fact that it remains in Europe’s interest to work again on a structured and cohesive plan (among Member States) in order to tackle the most important humanitarian challenge of the century.

Refugees who reach Europe crossing the Mediterranean Sea originate from countries affected by either civil wars, famines or harsh dictatorships.  Regarding the Central Mediterranean route in particular, migrants reaching Italian coasts coming from Libya are mainly nationals of Sub Saharan African countries. North African countries (Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia) are not among the first five countries of provenance of refugees. This element is key to understanding how the EU should act in the Mediterranean context. North African countries (NACs) appear to be transit countries and not countries of origin. This makes them crucial partners for Europe in tackling the refugee crisis. Moreover, these countries suffered economic crises alongside EU Member States, particularly due to the fall in oil prices. It is evident that economic weakness and political instability do not help NACs in playing the role that geography and politics have carved out for them. African nations such as Nigeria are expected to double their population by 2050 –  reaching the impressive number of about 390 million people alone. In 2015, North African countries accounted for a population of roughly 220 million people) compared to 1 billion in Sub Saharan Africa. Mass migration originates in Central Africa rather than from the North Africa region. This massive outflow is unlikely to diminish and this should prompt Europe and NACs to revise their strategy and act together to manage the refugee crisis.

Luca Orfano piece

Refugees arrive at Catania, Sicily in April 2015. Photo by IFRC under CC License.

The EU should have two different approaches respectively for origin countries and for transition countries. The reason for this dual strategy relies on the differences that characterize the two groups of countries. Origin countries affected by conflict and famine, such as Niger or Eritrea, have different problems with respect to those that affect, for example, Libya. There are several plans implemented by the EU authorities for Sub-Saharan African states, one of them is the proposal known as Migration Compact which aims at promoting long-lasting partnerships to favour the economic development of those nations. This approach calls for a strengthened relationship between Europe and NACs. In order to favour cooperation and prosperity in North Africa, a necessary starting point to efficiently deal with the refugee crisis, Europe is expected to negotiate with NACs considering them as partners and not merely receivers of international aid. The establishment of a ‘foreign policy’ strategy to tackle the refugee crisis, rather than the aforementioned ‘security’ approach would offer far more chances of success in terms of migration control.  Such a strategy would be underpinned by the following:

  1. Europe’s commitment must be to invest substantially in countries like Libya – which are politically unstable but possess great economic potential hampered by the recent fall in oil prices. Initially, these investments should focus on securing the country, reconciling tensions among local tribes and favouring the rebirth of a unified country. To this extent, increased economic partnerships to create more jobs and neutralize potential social tensions are highly desirable.
  2. Fostering university partnerships between EU and NACs’ academic institutions would be a strategic means to contribute to the overall capacity development of NACs. Links would favour student exchanges and a mix of culture around the Mediterranean basin that can only enhance the social conditions of younger generations, promoting new technical skills with which graduates might contribute to their country and generate an overall benefit for local societies. This proposal is nothing but an innovative form of diplomacy that Member States and Brussels authorities should adopt in order to establish new and productive links with NACs. Countries like Libya have a geographic position that inevitably connects them with Europe. An increased European presence on the ground is highly desirable to assist these countries in their development path. Is this strategy a contribution to the solution of migration crisis? Undoubtedly it helps to change perspective in analysing the problem, conjugating a European security concern with a dynamic approach that crosses different aspects of society and casts a light on migration not only as a problem but also as a an opportunity.
  3. Admittedly, a breakthrough towards an externalization of the migration problem, actively involving NACs with European activities, ranging from academic partnerships to the management of labour migration, has already been proposed by the European Institutions (MEMO 2007). This externalization approach relies on the belief that a diplomatic presence of EU bodies on the ground would facilitate the management of migration. Since their arrival in NACs after suffering unspeakable injuries during the journey across Sahara Desert, migrants should be welcomed by well-organized structures. The EU is expected to act through its embassies in order to cooperate with local authorities, help them in reception activities, the recognition of refugees and taking care of labour aspects by establishing on the ground recruitment centres and providing information of job offers in transition countries as well as in European countries .

Managing migration should involve building up an alliance between EU and North African countries, with the former helping the latter in assisting refugees upon arrival, hosting them, protecting victims of human trafficking, and offering them an initial alternative to the decision to risk their lives and those of their children by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. In order to promote this ambitious initiative it is necessary to stabilize countries like Libya: the first host country for migrants, but also the acme of their tragic journey where they may face torture and imprisonment in full violation of international human rights law.

It is extremely important to favour the political reconciliation and the economic recovery of countries like Libya. It is only through the implementation of this policy that the control of migration can be more efficient and respectful of human dignity. In order to realize this political project, the EU must be aware of its weight and its duties, overcome intergovernmental vetoes and assume an international role, treating NACs as crucial partners of a common phenomenon best addressed together. Perhaps, this is the last chance for Europe to face this historical challenge and consciously shape its future identity within the new emerging geopolitical scene.

Luca Orfanò is a postgraduate student of Economics at the University of Turin. His final dissertation consisted in research about the long-term economic effects of migrants and refugees’ arrival to Europe. Particularly, his work focused on the main differences that prompt migrants and refugees to leave their countries, the dynamics of integration and the chances of a migration of return more evident for migrants than for refugees. Consequently, he oriented his studies toward International Relations, taking a Masters in Diplomacy at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan. Luca currently collaborates with an Italian online journal of European Affairs, RivistaEuropae

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