Italian officials have reported sharp falls in the numbers of migrants and refugees travelling to their shores from Libya across the central Mediterranean route.
Good news, for once? Or a problem partially solved at the price of a morally compromised EU?
In 2016, some 160,000 people travelled on makeshift boats from Libya to Italy. The number of crossings in July 2017 was half what it was in July 2016, and in August, 20 per cent of what it was a year earlier. Crossings were down from nearly 28,000 people in June to below 10,000 in August, according to UN data.
The decline in numbers, coming in the wake of the virtual elimination of the eastern Mediterranean route flows to Greece, courtesy of the EU's deal with Turkey, has come as welcome news to European capitals dreading the next round of politically embarrassing demands for "burden sharing" resettlements of refugees.
Indeed, there's a new request already on the table from the UN to the EU to resettle some 40,000 more from Libya, Egypt, Niger, Ethiopia and Sudan – an effort to offer legal ways into the EU instead of smuggling or trafficking. The commission is awaiting member state offers and Charlie Flanagan last week promised to take an additional refugees into Ireland in 2018.
Until recently, militias in the towns west of Tripoli from which most migrants depart had provided protection to smuggling and trafficking groups
But at what price Italy’s apparent success? There are repeated claims, vehemently denied, that Rome has been paying off Libyan warlords and militias linked to people-traffickers and turning a blind eye to the confining of refugees in detention, “concentration” camps where they have been left hungry, brutalised, raped and tortured.
Weapons and boats
Until recently, militias in the towns west of Tripoli from which most migrants depart had provided protection to smuggling and trafficking groups. Many of these groups have recently been receiving large sums, weapons and boats via the precarious UN-backed Tripoli unity government. The latter payments have been funded by Italy, partly on behalf of the EU – it is not clear if Italy has also been making direct payments to the groups.
But the leader of the main militia, Ahmed Dabbashi, admitted to the London Times that Tripoli had promised him vehicles, boats and salaries in exchange for co-operation.
Paying off militias has a long history in Libya, going back to the days of Muammar Gadafy, who was not averse to blackmailing Italy, turning on and off the flow of migrants across the Med.
But as a strategy for “buying peace” it has not ever been successful, and the respected International Crisis Group think tank warns that such tactics may simply “accidentally empower factions that resist government oversight” and will prolong efforts to bring peace to the ravaged country.
The EU has also been involved in patrolling the Libyan coast, with its naval force operation (EU Navfor Med), known as Operation Sophia, to save lives at sea and disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks. Ireland has recently signed up to Sophia, putting its naval rescue mission at its disposal.
Their task has been made more difficult by the supposedly co-operating Libyan coast guard’s insistence that Sophia vessels remain 90 nautical miles off the coast – their logic: that making rescue too easy for the refugees will simply encourage them. They have also been accused of abuses, including shooting at aid workers trying to rescue migrants.
The EU has been pressing Tripoli to do something about the horrendous conditions in the detention centres
The problem is that, having opted in desperation on a strategy based on stopping the flow of migrants at source, rather than endlessly expanding reception centres in Italy and Greece, the EU’s policy options appear to be morally dubious, not to mention politically counterproductive, in the context of sustaining a peace process in Libya.
It has committed to funding and training the coast guard, many of whose members are "reformed" militia members, not exactly house-trained in human rights and not averse to bribery. It has poured millions into projects in countries like Niger and Nigeria in anti-migration projects, and where it has been making substantial payments to traffickers, to "retrain" them for non-criminal activities.
Belatedly, the EU has been pressing Tripoli to do something about the horrendous conditions in the detention centres. To offset criticism it has has stepped up financing for the UN agencies for migration (IOM) and refugees (UNHCR) to have them try to improve conditions for migrants inside Libya.
The ICG is also concerned by what it sees as a substantial flaw in the EU approach: “Southwest Libya is the missing link in the EU’s action plan, as the region, called the Fezzan, is central to the migration issue.” It is the entry point to the country for the vast majority of sub-Saharan refugees, but is ignored by the union.
"Libya remains politically adrift and economically unstable," the ICG also warns. "The country's rival factions are in desperate need of reconciliation and stabilisation. The fragile government led by prime minister Faiez Serraj risks becoming a mere placeholder, used by the EU or some of its member states to pursue a European – rather than Libyan – agenda, such as curbing migration. Failure to pursue Libyan interests will further discredit this government within Libya."
The determination to close Europe’s southern open door has left us – and I mean all of us – with only difficult, morally dubious options.