Although the EU-Turkey deal caused seemingly endless troubles, everyone seems to agree on one thing: the deal worked. It managed to drastically bring down refugee numbers. For the new Maltese EU presidency, this seems justification enough to replicate it, just that this time the chosen partner is Libya.
With his new proposal, up for debate at the EU Council on 3 February, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is trying to tie up a deal that would make Libya one of the EU’s closest partners in migration control. However, the price of this partnership would be high. It would not only mean a final goodbye to Europe’s commitment to human rights, but it would create further tensions both inside and outside Europe.
The timing of the proposal makes sense, with Malta just assuming the rotating EU presidency, and the migration influx expected to start in the spring. In order to prevent what he calls a “new migration crisis”, Muscat claims Europe has to act quickly and decisively, with pragmatism taking precedence over idealism. In concrete terms, this means negotiating and funding a deal with Libya in which the Libyan coastguard, de facto dependent on whichever warring faction rules the coastline, would be responsible for turning around boats before they reach international waters. This is supposed to drive down numbers, and disrupt the business of smugglers. In return, reception centers would be opened in Libya, allowing asylum seekers to apply on the spot, with the lucky ones accepted receiving safe passage over the sea. Yet, what sounds reasonable in the beginning, is ultimately heavily flawed.
On a very basic level, every deal to be reached with Libya will face the inevitable problem that there is not one Libyan government, but three competing ones, with further rival factions at war with each other. A situation that might even become more complicated in the near future, if predictions about increased Russian involvement become true. Who is the EU to negotiate with? Who is it to lodge complaints with if problems arise? Neither the country as a whole, nor any of its ruling factions are bound to international conventions or instruments on human rights, or have functioning and impartial judicial systems to deal with cases of abuse. By forcing refugees to stay in Libya and deal with Libyan forces, their situation would become even more precarious. In addition, relying on militia-bound coastguards to fight human trafficking would effectively be setting a thief to catch a thief, with connections between both parties well-known, and corruption widespread. Relying on these kinds of partners to protect European borders and stop refugees would be a tragic mistake.
The second part of Muscat’s proposal, the idea of safe corridors and the possibility to apply for asylum directly in Libya, is more sensible, but will equally fail to achieve much on its own. Firstly, as Dublin rules would most likely be out of effect for these cases, such a corridor means little if there is no European agreement on how refugees are allocated among member states. The difficulties of reaching such an agreement are known, and are unlikely to be overcome, particularly if coming without a cap on numbers. Secondly, the awarding of such humanitarian visas in Libya would inevitably become a massive pull factor in the region, drawing more and more migrants into the country that will, if denied asylum, either try to make their way to Europe regardless, or possibly end up stranded in the country.
This does not mean that everything about the proposal is bad. Granting humanitarian visas in embassies and special reception centres abroad is a useful concept, if applied correctly. This would however necessitate a large network of such facilities throughout the regions of origin, concrete measures to incentivize applications via the official channels, and ways to disincentivize journeys to Europe after visa rejection through the official channel. Such measures could be loosely oriented on the Australian model of differentiation between resettlements and boat arrivals, but would most certainly have to include proper identification of applicants at reception centers, so as to prevent illegal entry after initial rejection. Along the same lines, migration deals with both origin and transit countries are useful and often even necessary, yet necessitate clear safeguards for human rights and long-term stability.
In the ideal case, European leaders will agree with Muscat that something has to be done urgently, yet reject his proposal. It would amount to no more than another short-term fix meant to keep numbers low, while completely disregarding any implications for the human rights of migrants or the need for stable long-term solutions.