Migration from North Africa may be set to reprise the crisis of 2015/16 when Europe was swamped by a million refugees. The uncontrolled civil war in Libya and the conflict in Syria threaten to unleash thousands of migrants across the central and eastern Mediterranean.
Military and diplomatic uncertainty in Libya has coincided with a sharp rise in the number of migrants departing the Libyan coast in the last two months. This has exacerbated concerns that the civil war between forces loyal to Fayez al Sarraj, the UN-backed prime minister in Tripoli, and those commanded by the self-styled Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east of the country, could precipitate an exodus of refugees from Libya.
An emigration surge would be especially difficult to manage given Libya’s limited search and rescue capacity as a result of orders directed at the Libyan Coast Guard by Sarraj’s government to halt all operations. Until then, all migrants picked up by the Libyan Coast Guard had been disembarked in Libya under a secret deal negotiated by Malta with Libya under which the AFM coordinated with the coast-guard to intercept migrants heading to Malta and – in an act which raised fundamental human rights issues – returned to the war-torn country.
The risk of asylum-seekers fleeing Libya could increase if the war for Tripoli deteriorates and as the weather improves. Just three years ago, 120,000 migrants crossed the central Mediterranean. A repeat now would threaten Malta, as well as Italy and southern Europe more generally.
Moreover, President Erdogan of Turkey may have opened up another route into Europe through the eastern Mediterranean. The recent escalation of hostilities in Idlib and the worst loss of life to the Turkish Army for a quarter of a century have alarmed NATO and Europe, as has his threat of unleashing millions of migrants now on Turkey’s borders.
If Erdogan acts on his threat to rip up the 2016 deal with the EU to stop refugees flowing into Europe, the political consequences may prove extremely serious. In recent days, buses filled with hundreds of Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi and West African refugees were sent by the Turkish government to the Greek border, where the authorities are struggling to maintain control.
It is against this background that the EU’s capacity to manage another migration crisis must be viewed. The visit to Malta last week by the European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, does not provide any comfort that the EU has yet developed an agreed policy of how to handle a major migration crisis of the scale of 2015/16.
Although Ms Johansson recognised that “uncoordinated national actions are not enough”, in response to the key question about legally binding mechanisms to underpin any future Common European Asylum System, she was suspiciously coy.
She said that “any legally binding mechanisms [between member states] remained to be defined”. While acknowledging that relocation between states was “an important part of the European approach to migration and asylum policy” she had no concrete proposals to offer.
As the commissioner responsible for this European policy area at a time when political events affecting migration in the central and eastern Mediterranean are escalating internationally in an uncontrolled manner, it is a source of concern to a frontline state like Malta that Europe appears, again, to be lacking the plans, mechanisms or, indeed, political will to act.
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