Europe Makes Progress, but Libya Key to Resolving Mediterranean Crisis

Migrants wait to enter a Sicilian harbor after making the Mediterranean crossing from North Africa. (Vito Manzari/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, the European Council held an emergency summit to address the growing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. This was triggered by an April 19 shipwreck off the coast of Libya that killed over 800 migrants, most of whom were from sub-Saharan Africa. Not even a week earlier, 400 migrants were killed in another shipwreck on the same route. Estimates suggest up to 1,700 people have died in the sea since the beginning of the year.

Understandably, there are widespread calls—most notably by the government of frontline country Italy—for an effective response. So far these calls have focused on what leaders can do in the Mediterranean itself, and the larger task of addressing the root causes of the increasing numbers of refugees making the crossing has been conspicuously absent.

There were certainly some significant outcomes from the recent summit. While it did not go as far as restoring the search and rescue functions of Mare Nostrum—the Italian operation that saved more than 140,000 lives between October 2013 and November 2014—it did triple the funding to that program’s border protection-focused replacement, the European Union-administered Triton from three to nine million euros (9.8 million USD) a month, effective immediately and stretching well into 2016.

This essentially restores the funding levels of Mare Nostrum, if not its full functionality. The extra money will go towards new surveillance ships, helicopters, and infrastructure and could also see Triton’s area of operation extended beyond the first 30 miles off European coasts, thus addressing a major criticism of its limited geographic scope.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres welcomed the EU finally developing a new strategy. As Guterres said, the test will be “whether we see reduction in lives lost, effective access to protection in Europe without having to cross the Mediterranean, and an effective Common European Asylum System.”

Addressing Root Causes

In the longer term, however, the problem is unlikely to be resolved unless its root causes are effectively addressed. Ideally this would involve eliminating all those conflicts and conditions the migrants are fleeing, but a major achievement would be to address the political and security crisis that has gripped Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. More than 90 percent of boats reaching European waters currently leave from Libyan ports and the country is the main transit point for all migrant routes originating from Northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Restoring effective governance and order would therefore go a long way towards curbing the number of dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean currently being attempted.

Libya’s crisis is complex, however. Its two rival governments claim control of the country, but only one of them—that based in the eastern city of Tobruk—is recognized by the international community. Tripoli’s rival Islamist government in the west has made it clear that it won’t abandon its goal of restoring the General National Congress dissolved in 2014, and currently boasts a sizable military force.

Additionally, the political and security vacuum between these two areas of influence has been exploited by extremist groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). In February, these groups reportedly killed 21 Egyptian hostages along the Libyan coast, and last week also allegedly executed nearly 30 Ethiopian Christians. ISIS affiliates also claimed responsibility for the March 18 terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in neighboring Tunisia, pointing to an expanding reach. ISIS has even gone as far as to threaten to make its way to Italy by that same Mediterranean route currently being travelled by migrants.

The disorder has led to the absence of a reliable Libyan police force under the authority of a clear, central state, which has enabled human traffickers in the broader region to carry out their work largely unhindered. Moreover, extremists, including ISIS affiliates, are likely also sustaining the trade, benefiting from its lucrative profits and channeling funds back into terrorist activities.

Restoring some semblance of peace and stability in Libya would clearly be in European interests, but how to achieve this remains a contentious issue. Some have hinted at a military response, ideally backed by a UN Security Council resolution. But there are inherent risks in these types of approaches. Military intervention runs the risk of exacerbating, rather than alleviating, the crisis as it has elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, Libya included. It is also unclear whether a resolution would obtain the approval of all Security Council members.

The best chance of resolving the Libyan crisis remains the UN-backed political mediation process. The primary objective of negotiations is to form a unity government that fulfills the expectations of both sides. This has admittedly suffered some setbacks, but it currently has the support of the bulk of the international community. At the latest round of negotiations held in Morocco, UN Special Representative Bernardino Léon retained faith that the dialogue could still provide Libyans with the chance to end the country’s bloodshed.

Further Challenges

Last week’s coordinated response suggested that the unprecedented scale of the situation is forcing the EU to take the Mediterranean crisis much more seriously. There are, however, a number of important issues that remain unaddressed. In addition to the situation in Libya, these include the limitations of Triton’s legal mandate.

Its predecessor Mare Nostrum was a search-and-rescue operation whose primary goal was to save lives at sea. To achieve this, Italian forces often deployed as far as Libya’s territorial waters, something Triton is unable to do. Legally, it is only a border protection mission under the umbrella of the EU agency Frontex. European Commission Spokeswoman Natasha Berthaud has indicated that this may change in the future, though to what extent remains unclear.

A draft proposal to last week’s meeting also sought to double the number of asylum seekers legally admitted to Europe, from 5,000, to 10,000, which could have had further implications in reducing the need for people to make dangerous crossings from Africa. However, the cap ultimately remained unchanged and the topic of equitable distribution of asylum seekers among the 28 EU member states—a point raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel—was also unaddressed.

Ideally, further EU reforms aimed at stopping deaths in the Mediterranean could be combined with efforts to address the root causes of asylum seekers taking to the seas in the first place, largely through a UN-backed dialogue aimed at resolving the Libyan crisis. This coordinated, two-fronted approach seems to offer the best hope of avoiding a repeat of the hundreds of avoidable deaths that have occurred in the past few weeks and months.

Ramy Srour is Assistant Web Editor at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @_rasr13.