Just over a year ago, the Italian government struck a deal with the Libyan authorities to intercept migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. Following the arrival of half a million refugees and migrants in just three years, the center-left Democratic Party – the same party that set up the ambitious search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, back in 2013 – decided that it had to act.
A short memorandum of understanding was followed by a string of agreements with Libyan mayors and tribal leaders negotiated – often personally – by Italy’s minister of interior, Marco Minniti. The policy had an immediate effect: Arrivals in the second half of 2017 were down 70 percent compared to the same period the year before, and deaths at sea declined equally sharply.
Italy’s Libya strategy was backed by the rest of the E.U. but has been roundly criticized by NGOs and U.N. agencies for trapping thousands of migrants in a lawless country, in which they risk torture, extortion and slavery, sometimes at the hands of the very groups these agreements were struck with. The Libyan coast guard stands accused of handing over those it intercepts to inhumane detention centers, where abuse is common.
And yet when Italy voted, one thing was not in question: that whatever coalition emerges over the coming months will keep the current Libya policy in place. Not a single party that polled more than a few percent opposed it. In an election in which migration played a central role, promising to control borders was, clearly, a necessary condition for success – even if was not, as Minniti found out to his cost, a sufficient one.
This sobering reality highlights the true challenge for those who care about the rights of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya. The challenge: How can one persuade a critical mass of Italy’s political establishment that a migration policy that combines control with empathy, effectiveness with humanity, and reduced irregular movement with human rights, is not only possible but also electorally rewarding?
The effort may well be wasted on Italy’s far-right parties. But they cannot govern alone and may not govern at all. Italy’s other parties, however, including the Five Star Movement, might yet be persuaded that there is a humane migration policy that makes sense.
A humane policy must aim for zero deaths at sea. It must ensure that all those rescued by European boats have access to a fair, effective asylum procedure. It must ensure that nobody who is intercepted by the Libyan coast guard ends up in inhumane detention centers. And it must protect those in need of protection from being pushed back into danger in their home countries. A migration policy that can win majority support must offer meaningful control over irregular migration and residence.
A Plan for an Effective and Humane Policy
How can these goals be met? The next Italian government should propose to its European partners a realistic plan that includes the following four elements.
First, a common effort is needed to ensure sufficient search-and-rescue capacity beyond Libya’s territorial waters. In the first six months of 2017, more than 2,500 refugees and migrants drowned. Some 600 people still drowned in the second half of the year despite the reduction in departures. Instead of demonizing NGO rescue boats or leaving it to the Libyan coast guard or the Italian authorities, all European countries should make an even bigger effort.
Second, Western support to the Libyan coast guard and the Libyan authorities should be linked to a clear condition: that anybody intercepted by its boats and taken back to Libya should be offered immediate evacuation to Niger by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The numbers involved make this possible: In 2017, the Libyan coast guard intercepted fewer than 1,500 people a month on average. In Niger, those who choose not to apply for asylum should be offered assisted return to their countries of origin via the IOM. Those who do apply for asylum should be resettled to a safe country if found to be in need of protection. The same should happen with the approximately 5,000 people currently held in Libyan detention centers.
The key challenge is to find a humane, legal way of reducing irregular economic migration. Ultimately, this can only be achieved by changing the incentives that currently exist for would-be economic migrants. Currently the only disincentives to traveling to Europe are the cost and the risk of the journey.
The vast majority of migrants who make it to Italy can be confident that they will be able to stay, whether they are granted international protection or not. Last year 130,000 people applied for asylum in Italy, a majority from West African countries. The same year 12,000 applicants were granted international protection. But almost everybody stays in Europe, regardless of their asylum status.
One obvious reason for this is the reluctance of countries of origin to cooperate in the identification and return of their citizens. In 2016 more than 100,000 people arrived in Italy from six West African nations; around 4,300 citizens of these countries were granted international protection. And 255 returned, voluntarily or by force. Successive Italian authorities have found it easiest to allow migrants to either move on to other European countries, or integrate, however precariously, into Italy’s thriving black economy.
So the third priority should be securing agreements with key African countries of origin for failed asylum seekers arriving after an agreed date. These countries should be offered an annual contingent of regular visas, not just by Italy, for work or study. Such agreements will only work if they are found to be in the interests of countries of origin and if they offer the possibility of replacing uncontrolled irregular economic migration with controlled regular migration.
Fourth, seriously discouraging irregular economic migration also requires a quick, but fair, asylum process that should seek to award a protection status or move to deport those found to have no claim within two to three months at most. This need not come at the expense of quality: The Netherlands has one of the best systems in Europe and it consistently delivers informed decisions within this timeframe. It may require keeping most asylum seekers in closed centers for this duration. It would certainly require the financial and administrative support of other E.U. countries, which should relocate recognized asylum seekers. This would not be cheap to run, or easy to set up, but as a joint European effort, it is doable.
Making the Plan a Reality
This plan would not end all arrivals in Europe – which is not the goal – but it would sharply reduce numbers – which is. It would create legal channels for refugees and economic migrants. It would reduce deaths at sea and not condemn people to torture in Libyan detention centers. It would guarantee access to asylum for those who do reach Italy and uphold the core principles of the Refugee Convention for those who do not.
But will such a plan find backers? Italy’s election results – with strong gains for the populist Five Star protest movement and the far-right League – showed deep disaffection with the parties that governed Italy in the past two decades. They also showed that, while tough policies on migration made Minniti popular, neither he, nor his party, benefitted electorally. Minniti did not win his direct mandate, and his Democratic Party fell below 20 percent, its lowest score ever.
Italian politics highlights realities that are true for most of the E.U. today. Any political party that fails to promise to control borders renders itself unelectable. At the same time, there are a lot of voters who care about the right to asylum and do not want to see those who cross borders treated inhumanely. Offering such policies would distinguish mainstream parties, on the left and on the right, from racists on the far-right, and help to win back voters who feel their concerns on migration have been ignored.
And the human rights community? Many will welcome the commitment to legal pathways, but balk at the prospect of more returns, faster procedures and closed asylum processing centers. But those making moral calculations must reflect on the fact that the only real alternative – in this imperfect world – is not something better, but something much worse. Demagogues are best defeated by demonstrating, with conviction and through effective policies, that a world in which empathy has a central place, is possible.
Read more at the European Stability Initiative’s Core Facts briefing: The Italian Magnet. The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.