The EU-Turkey agreement on Syrian refugees was finally adopted on 18th March and came into force three days later. While flows have started to decline moderately over the past couple of days, serious doubts remain about the applicability of the agreement, both as regards its conformity with international and EU law, and the ability and willingness of the EU member states to resettle the anticipated number of Syrians foreseen under the ‘one-for-one’ system.
This is in addition to the fact that, according to many reports, flows from Turkey are now likely to shift from Greece to Bulgaria, thus creating a new, relatively unprotected entry point to the EU. In a statement last week, Austrian Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner warned that over one million refugees could now potentially set their sights on using Bulgaria as a transit point to reach Central Europe.
However, assuming that all of the above issues will gradually be ironed out and that the EU-Turkey agreement, coupled with new measures to close down the eastern Balkans route, will eventually prove effective, will this mean that ‘the days of irregular migration to Europe are over’, as was suggested by President Tusk earlier this month?
In a letter sent to foreign ministers on 12 March, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stressed that the “volatile situation” in Libya raised the possibility that more than 450,000 refugees “could be potential candidates for migration to Europe”. Some 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Libya in 2014 and 150,000 last year, with death tolls largely exceeding those on the Turkish route due to the longer distances involved. It is now expected that the number of arrivals from Libya could increase significantly this year, due also to the freedom with which people smugglers are still able to operate in a mostly ungoverned country.
So, back to square one?
It would be unfair to suggest that the EU has been turning a blind eye on the potential Libya-EU mass migration threat. In particular, since May 2015 the EUNAVFOR MED Operation SOPHIA has been at work in the Southern Central Mediterranean to combat people smuggling, prevent irregular migration flows and avoid migrants’ deaths at sea. According to the latest six-month report published in January this year, the Operation Sophia has contributed to the arrest of 46 suspected smugglers and to the disposal of 67 boats.
There are now plans for the EU to send a civilian security mission to boost the country’s police, border forces and counter-terrorism operations and David Cameron recently expressed his intention to send Royal Navy vessels close to the coast of Libya to deter thousands of migrants from embarking on the perilous sea journey to Europe. This is in response to the fact that the Operation Sophia is currently only able to operate in international waters, while an EU naval presence closer to the Libyan shore would clearly enhance its ability to deter migrants from boarding unsafe vessels and would facilitate the work of local coastguards escorting smugglers’ boats back to shore, before destroying them.
However, whatever the scale of current and future EU naval operations in the Southern Central Mediterranean, there is little doubt that their potential to stem the growing migratory flow to any decisive extent will be limited in the absence of any close cooperation from the Libyan authorities themselves. If there is one lesson to be drawn from the unprecedented Turkey-EU migration crisis, this is that despite the stepping up of Frontex and Nato operations in the Aegean Sea, amongst other unilateral actions, only the recent active involvement of the Turkish authorities does now appear likely to alter the apparently stand still course of events.
A lot will therefore depend on the EU’s on-going efforts to help Libya boost its institutions and ensure that the UN-backed government, which is currently based in Tunis, can operate from Tripoli eventually. These efforts, as well as a proposal to set up a team of ‘deployable experts’ on migration and security issues in Libya, are due to be discussed by EU defence and foreign affairs ministers in a joint meeting focused on Libya on 18 April.
However, will any such discussions not be reminiscent of those that have drained EU-Turkey relations during the past couple of years over the migrant crisis? It is indeed difficult to imagine how a sustainable solution could be found in the short term in Libya – a country where, unlike Turkey, a viable government and stable institutions are still to be established.
It is therefore likely that Libya will soon turn into yet a new milestone in the EU’s unfolding migrant crisis history – a milestone that will no doubt absorb considerable effort and resources over the coming months. It can only be hoped that the recent EU-Turkey agreement will act as a dry run that will help identify both viable and unpractical solutions to the Libyan and future migrant crises.
* Solon Ardittis is Director of Eurasylum, a European research and consulting organisation specialising in migration and asylum policy on behalf of national public authorities and EU institutions. He is also co-editor of “Migration Policy Practice”, a bimonthly journal published jointly with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).