Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting socio-economic crisis, south-to-north migration in the Mediterranean continues to be a pressing issue and indicates a broader problem in the region. The latest developments threaten a further unravelling of the network of agreements between the European Union (EU) and the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries that have evolved since the 1990s to curb overall migration. These agreements resulted in the internalization and institutionalization of restrictive policies and, in extreme cases, criminalization of migration, which eventually led to the major movement of people in 2015, resulting in the deadliest year on the Mediterranean.
This insight seeks to understand the current migration crisis in the central Mediterranean. It will examine the framework of north-south agreements that form the context as it has evolved until the present. It also analyzes the impact of the ongoing Libyan military and political conflicts and the likely outcomes and implications for the future, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Migration has continued despite the militarization of the ongoing geostrategic crisis in the central Mediterranean. This problem persists even though the system of cooperation, underscored by the EU Migration Partnership Framework (“EU Framework” hereafter), has been instituted to manage the new migration inflows. This accord is complicated by a residual plethora of bilateral agreements between the north and the south that seek to curb migration, equalize refugee-related issues with human trafficking, and secure borders without adequately addressing the root causes of issues have historically generated migrant flows. Moreover, the previous decade has demonstrated that the externalization of migration policies from European countries has had a negative spillover effect on domestic migration policies in the southern Mediterranean countries.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the fragile agreements between the north and south Mediterranean countries have furthered Europe’s border securitization. Many EU member states, including Italy and Malta, have exploited the state of emergency and declared ports of entry unsafe for migrants, thus causing dozens of casualties. In addition to Covid-19, Libya’s ongoing conflict has also complicated the Mediterranean migration dilemma since 2011. While almost two-thirds of European countries have included asylum offers in their emergency programming to address the crisis, in countries where asylum procedures are suspended, and people’s stay is not regulated, there is an inadvertent gap in accessing basic healthcare and other forms of support.
Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the Independent Monitoring, Rapid Research and Evidence Facility (IMRREF) conducted a study in May 2020 on the risks faced by migrants and refugees along the Mediterranean route, including primary-data collection from Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The results demonstrated that border closures in both the south and the northern Mediterranean countries, and increased controls along the coastline on both sides, have made it harder for migrants to continue their journeys northward or return. The situation has resulted in an increased number of stranded migrants and refugees who have found themselves in a precarious position and increasingly at risk of contracting the Covid-19 virus.
Graph 1: Attempted migrant crossings along the Central Mediterranean
Overall, further travel restrictions, border closures, and the suspension of the refugee registration in the region have affected migrants’ ability to seek asylum and assisted return. While smuggling activities temporarily dipped following Covid-19’s onset, migrants and refugees have once again started relying more heavily on illegal traffickers to cross the Mediterranean with the attendant risks of criminal profiteering, abuse, and potentially more deaths at sea.
Given the increase of new arrivals to northern Mediterranean countries due to both the persisting conflict in Libya and the Covid-19 pandemic, the absence of a unified approach and political will among the EU member states means that the core drivers of the Mediterranean crisis in the South and beyond remain unaddressed. As a consequence, the short-term future and the potential to de-escalate the issue remain uncertain.
Policy deficiencies before and during the Covid-19 pandemic
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, bilateral agreements and ad hoc measures for migrants and refugees had been preferred by both the EU member states and their North African counterparts, encompassing France, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Malta on the northern Mediterranean littoral, and Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt to the south.
Bilateral agreements, rather than the EU Framework, have been the primary shapers of the European countries’ approach to containing and addressing migration in the Mediterranean with their non-EU partners. In turn, the North-African countries have historically preferred negotiating bilateral agreements over the Framework due to their reliability of execution and shared mutual interests, neither of which have been fully guaranteed within the EU Framework itself given its consensus-based nature. These bilateral agreements tend to explicitly focus on both parties’ immediate needs rather than overarching, long-term regional goals and targets. Such a system would require more transparency, tougher due processing, and effective machinery for monitoring, follow-up, and evaluation. The critical issue is that none of the countries involved have a political interest in realizing such outcomes.
As the most active generator of bilateral agreements with its North African counterparts, Italy has agreed on many such accords with Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt since the late 1990s. As a result, they subsequently influenced the three countries’ domestic policies to the extent that migration was partially or completely criminalized.
For instance, the Libya-Italy relationship on this issue has oscillated from friendly cooperation to a complete severance of ties. After several years of practicing the jointly coordinated return of migrants from the Italian island of Lampedusa back to Libya, Italy ceased to accept and assist exponentially increasing numbers of incomers regardless of their origin. In April 2005, an EU Parliament resolution condemned the collective expulsion of 180 migrants from Lampedusa to Libya that took place in the previous month.
In parallel with the increasing salience of the migration issue, the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) was revised in 2015 to promote prosperity, stability, and security within the EU’s contiguous regions. The aim was to avoid creating new dividing lines between the enlarged Union and the countries in the Union’s immediate land and sea borders. The policy was intended to encompass 16 neighbors, 10 of which are South Mediterranean countries. In effect, the ENP has been posited as a collective upgrade to a history of practices in separate bilateral agreements made by the EU member states with various south Mediterranean counterparts, albeit with limited actual success.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the central Mediterranean crisis, and its geostrategic aspects, for the north and the south. The repercussions are reflected in the unresolved migration question’s further securitization, creating additional health-related risks, hindered mobility, forced returns, smuggling and precarious living conditions. Another grave consequence is the effect on the EU’s relationship with Libya as the primary departure-port for migrants and refugees.
Measures implemented by most northern Mediterranean governments in response to the Covid-19 pandemic include port closures, delays in disembarkation, and the reduced presence of search and rescue vessels on the increasingly busy central Mediterranean route. The early stages of the pandemic have also seen the reduced presence of NGO rescue ships along the north Mediterranean coastline; these vessels had previously served as vital lifelines to migrants and refugees. While many rescue operations have restarted, their capacity is limited, given the pandemic-related risks.
Moreover, in leveraging public health concerns to tighten control at their borders, the Maltese and Italian governments introduced further restrictions on disembarkation in their ports and declared their ports unsafe in April 2020. For instance, the Lazio regional administrative court in Italy rejected a request to suspend the decree with which the Italian government established that its ports were unsafe due to pandemic-related concerns.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent socio-economic crisis have therefore already had a devastating impact on refugees and migrants, bringing the the Central Mediterranean Route’s long-established issues to the fore of European crisis policy.
The impact on migrants has reflected itself in severely reduced mobility and availability of assistance, resulting in an increase in stranded cases, a rise in enforced returns, and largely unmonitored health risks in camps and camp-like settings along the route on both sides of the Mediterranean. Moreover, a food security assessment survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in April 2020 on 1,350 migrants in Libya demonstrated that 63 percent of respondents resorted to drastic food-related coping strategies given the increased shortage of basic food since the beginning of the year.
Graph 2: Mobility restrictions along the Central Mediterranean due to Covid-19
The Byzantine case of Libya
In addition to an acute crisis caused by the spread of the Covid-19 virus in the country, Libya’s ongoing conflict has acted as one of the most essential complicating factors for the Mediterranean crisis since its onset in 2011. With numerous international actors involved in various aspects of the struggle between the Libyan factions, the conflict has intensified to the extent that it is now having negative external impacts and massive damage to the country in terms of socio-economic activity, demographics, healthcare, and livelihoods.
The Libyan conflict has seen France and Italy’s vested involvement, given the two countries’ historical interests in Libya’s geostrategic areas and, in Italy’s case, dependence on Libya’s hydrocarbons. These interests resulted in two parallel, at times converging, political processes in the foreign policy agenda of both European powers, speaking to the overall ambiguity of Europe’s stance toward Libya. In the past year, France distanced itself from supporting Haftar and directed its official support for the UN-brokered peace process. At the same time, Italy took an equidistant approach to both the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Khalifa Haftar after years of supporting the GNA , even brokering its creation in 2015.
These shifts occurred following Italy’s takeover of the Berlin peace process. Leading up to the shift of tides in 2020, Italy’s relationship with the GNA and its armed forces had been fuelled primarily by the desire to protect their shores from massive migrant arrivals. This approach eventually contributed to partial militarization of the Central Mediterranean migration question  while also provoking Turkey’s intervention in Libya and a series of controversial maritime agreements with the GNA – a development further linked to intensified rivalries in the eastern Mediterranean.
Graph 3: Smuggling and trafficking routes through Libya
Instability and violence in Libya have also caused massive internal displacement since October 2011. The challenge presented by the country’s population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has been compounded by the presence of almost one million refugees and migrants, primarily coming from sub-Saharan African countries. In 2017, the UN estimated that 1.3 million people in Libya needed humanitarian assistance, with the most severe needs in the eastern and southern regions. In addition, the IOM identified around 350,000 IPDs in 2018, coupled with 275,000 migrants out of the overall total of one million estimated to be within the country.
Parallel to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, Libya’s conflict escalated in early 2020 with General Haftar’s attempt to topple the UN-recognized government. In addition to producing immediate casualties and more than 28,000 IDPs, the fighting’s escalation resulted in the reinforcement of the EU’s rejection of migrants arriving from Libya by boat under the pretext of Covid-19 related limitations. Moreover, some June reports allege that the European aircraft have been using aerial surveillance to help push migrants and refugees back from the central Mediterranean route to Libyan ports by alerting the Libyan coastguards and naval authorities to the presence of previously spotted vessels.
In total, more than 17,000 people have crossed from Libya and Tunisia to European shores within the year of 2020, with more than 300 losing their lives on the Mediterranean, attempting to cross it towards Europe. This represents a threefold increase since 2019. Moreover, the responsibility for the rescue of stranded migrants has been mostly realized by vessels belonging to the Libyan government, leading to 7,000 people being returned to Libya in the first six months of the year. While the dire situation on the ground is worsening, with no end to the conflict in sight, many external actors have distanced themselves from the responsibility of receiving migrants while also distancing themselves from the UN-brokered peace dialogue. In addition, violations of the UN Security Council-backed arms embargo on Libya are also hindering multinational efforts to promote inter-factional peace negotiations.
Conclusion: what the future holds
As the migration crisis in the central Mediterranean has taken on a regional security dimension, the national policies of major European countries such as France and Italy have increasingly diverged from the EU Framework. The result is that the Covid-19 pandemic has further “securitized” the migration issue and provided a pretext for new restrictions on the people’s flow from south to north. As a result, Europe’s neighbors in the MENA region have struggled with a steadily growing number of irregular migrants while also managing the pandemic’s impact and fulfilling their obligations under an increasingly threadbare network of bilateral agreements with European countries. Amid this dysfunctional context, individual migrants and displaced persons are faced with circumstances that are becoming more and more desperate every day.
The relationship between the north and the south Mediterranean countries has been marred with bilateral agreements and ad hoc arrangements that invite little transparency and, contrary to their intentions, reduce the prospects for security and long-term, sustainable solutions for all parties concerned with this issue. While initiatives such as the numerous EU projects in the Sahel have been well-intentioned in their aims and operational scope, many national policies have undermined common EU approaches and thus negated efforts to tackle the migrant crisis at source rather than as a “security” problem.
In addition, given its clause on negative incentives and penalties for non-compliance, the EU Framework is itself a clear indication of the EU’s shift toward a transactional, short-term, and incentives-based approach to migration and asylum in response to the “migration crisis.” Unless the Framework’s key clauses are amended to encompass an understanding that migration to Europe will not stop and Europe’s external relations with its non-EU partners need to be thoroughly re-examined to effectively move forward, the long-term repercussions threaten to be highly negative for both European and MENA countries.
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