Irregular Migration via the Central Mediterranean
Between 2011 and 2016, some 630,000 irregular migrants and refugees1 reached Italy via the Central Mediterranean. Some were successfully smuggled across, while others were rescued at sea and disembarked in Italy. More than 13,000 lost their lives attempting the crossing, and many more died on their journey through the Sahara.
In the face of such human tragedy, new maritime surveillance operations were launched in the Central Mediterranean towards the end of 2013 and successively scaled up. Yet, despite the intensified efforts, 2016 was both the deadliest year yet and the one that saw the largest number of irregular migrants disembark in Italy.
With the closing of the Western Balkan route and the conclusion of the EU-Turkey agreement, the Central Mediterranean now acts as the main gateof entry for irregular migrants arriving in the EU by sea. Against this backdrop, there is a clear need to strengthen concerted action at EU level to better control Europe’s Southern sea borders, while offering improved humanitarian assistance and protection to those in need.
Timeline and main actors
Flows of irregular migrants and refugees crossing the Central Mediterranean to get to Europe are not a new phenomenon. However, the steady increase in human tragedies in recent years has triggered a more institutionalised approach to survaillance operations – first at Italian, then at EU level – while also prompting growing involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Notwithstanding these efforts, the numbers of arrivals and deaths have continued to grow (Figure 1). Total recorded irregular sea arrivals in Italy in 2016 reached 181,436, which represents an 18% increase in comparison to 2015, and a 7% increase compared to 2014.2
Key turning points in search and rescue
Flows of irregular migrants crossing the Central Mediterranean are not a recent phenomenon. However, the ship wreckage off the coast of Lampedusa on 16 October 2013, which cost the lives of 366 Africans, marked a real turning point in terms of response. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the Italian Government launched a major military-supported humanitarian and border control operation ‘Mare Nostrum’, which saw both sea and air capabilities deployed in the Italian, Maltese and Libyan ‘Search and Rescue’ (SAR) zones,3 under the authority of the Italian Navy.
Prior to this, SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean were not institutionalised. Any rescue operations were carried out on an ad-hoc basis, in response to distress calls at sea, mainly by merchant vessels, as well as by Italian Coast Guard, Custom Guard and Fisheries Surveillance ships.
Despite seemingly broad public support,4 operation Mare Nostrum was politically controversial in Italy, given the high costs and the fact that the country was as seen as unfairly shouldering the burden for all other Member States.5 It ended just one year later, on 31 October 2014.
As of 1 November 2014, patrolling activities were taken over by the Frontex-led ‘Operation Triton’.6 Unlike Mare Nostrum, Operation Triton focused more on sea border protection in the first nine months, rather than SAR, operating closer to the Italian coast line and – at the request of Italy – with a smaller capability. However, as of 1 July 2015, it expanded its assets and spread its activities southwards, to a line 138 nautical miles south of Sicily (Figure 2). Operation Triton currently consists of nine Italian and three Maltese Coast Guard ships, as well as an additional ten sea vessels provided by other EU Member States7 and non-EU countries. 8 Three air assets also support the mission: two helicopters from the UK and one airplane from Finland (Figure 3).
The twin shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean on 22 June 2015, which left an estimated 1,200 irregular migrants and refugees dead or missing, marked a further turning point, compelling EU Foreign Ministers to launch the ‘EU NavFor Med Operation’ – now called ‘EU NavFor/Sophia’.9 This anti-smuggling mission became operational just 5 days later. It operates within the Libyan SAR zone (which spreads up to 200 nautical miles south of Sicily). However, the ships remain strictly outside Libyan territorial waters – i.e. the zone between 12 and 62 nautical miles north of the Libyan coast (Figure 2).10
Under its Italian flagship ‘Garibaldi’ (an Italian light aircraft carrier), EU NavFor/Sophia currently comprises an additional seven ships (including a British Destroyer, a German auxiliary ship, a British surveyor ship, a German mine hunter, as well as a Spanish, an Italian and a French frigate). These are supported by seven air assets: four helicopters provided by Italy, Spain and the UK, and three airplanes provided by Luxembourg, Spain and France (Figure 3). Although 25 Member States are providing assets or human resources to these operations, Italy still makes by far the largest contribution.
A shifting division of labour
In 2014, the Italian Navy and Custom Police (51%) and the Italian Coast Guard (23%) together represented three quarters of rescue efforts. Merchant ships crossing the area (25%) represented the broad remainder of the efforts (Figure 4).
As of mid-2014 though, a small but growing number of NGOs started actively pursuing SAR operations in the Central Mediterranean.11 At first, philanthropists Regina and Christopher Catrambone set up the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), equipping a former fishing vessel with two drones and staffing it with former Maltese Navy personnel.
As of 2015, the Brussels and Barcelona branches of the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) developed SAR capabilities, using their own vessels, the Bourbon Argos and Dignity.12 German NGO Sea-Watch also purchased a vessel to search for migrant boats in distress in 2015. And, in February 2016, SOS Mediterranée chartered a large ship to conduct operations in partnership with MSF. Later, in 2016, a spin-off of the official Spanish lifeguard company Pro-Activa joined in the efforts to rescue irregular migrants and refugees in the Central Mediterranean, as did other German NGOs, Sea-Eye and Jugend Rettet, as well as the Dutch charity Refugee Boat Foundation and the UK-based Save the Children.
Today a total of nine NGOs have a fleet of fourteen ships and two drones conducting SAR activities. As a result, NGOs were responsible for as many as 22% of all rescues in the Central Mediterranean in 2016. Still the dominant actors, the Italian Navy and Custom Police (26%) and the Italian Coast Guard (20%) together represented a little less than half of rescue efforts. Rescues by merchant marine vessels declined significantly, to 8% while EU operations Triton and EUNavFor Sophia accounted for 25% of rescues (Figures 4 and 5).
Typically, NGOs operate in a range of 10 to 50 km off the Libyan coast. Two different operating models can be observed: Organisations with larger vessels, such as MOAS, MSF, and SOS-Mediterranée, conduct fully-fledged SAR operations, picking up irregular migrants and refugees, transporting them and dropping them off in Italian ports.13 Smaller NGOs such as Sea-Watch and Pro-Activa focus exclusively on rescuing on the spot, distributing life jackets, drinking water and emergency medical care near the Libyan coast while waiting for larger vessels (operating in the area) to shuttle irregular migrants and refugees into an Italian port.
As a response to the growing intensity of rescue operations and arrivals in Italy, the Italian authorities started to open hotspots and mobile teams as of September 2015,14 to identify and register irregular migrants and refugees. Today, Italy counts four active hotspots (Lampedusa, Pozzallo, Taranto and Trapani), which are supported also by Frontex and European Asylum Support Office (EASO) staff.15
The growing diversity of actors involved in SAR operations has made the work of police and coast guards more challenging with regards to identification and processing of irregular migrants and securing the external borders of the EU.
Who is crossing the Central Mediterranean route?
Most arrivals in 2016 were from Africa (Figure 6). Nigeria (21%), Eritrea (11%), Guinea (7%), Ivory Coast (7%), Gambia (7%), Senegal (6%), Mali (6%), Sudan (5%) and Somalia (4%) were the main countries of orgin. The only non-African nation on the top ten list of sending countries is Bangladesh (4%).
The sizeable reduction in numbers of sea arrivals in Greece and the closing of the Western Balkan route have, in fact, had almost no impact on the composition of sea arrivals in Italy.
The geographic distribution clearly reveals that a majority of irregular migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean are most likely not refugees in the sense of the Geneva Convention, given that some 70 % come from countries or regions not suffering from violent conflicts or oppressive regimes.
This is also reflected in the number of asylum applications submitted by those that are disembarked in Italy: In 2014, only one in three asked for asylum.16 The figure has risen somewhat since then, to reach around 50%17. However, this rise does not so much reflect a change in the composition of migration flows, but rather the impact of the creation of hotspots and the fact that asylum procedures are often misused or abused, also because of the lack of legal avenues enabling irregular migrants to remain in Europe.
As a result, the asylum system is overloaded with claims of people who are not seeking protection but rather an improvement of their – often dire – living conditions.
Although the institutionalisation of maritime surveillance and rescue operations served a humanitarian purpose, it has also had other consequences – intended and unintended.
For one, the broader role of EUNavFor Sophia and the increasing activity of NGOs has meant that SAR activities have shifted geographically, moving away from the Italian coast to waters closer to Libya and – in the case of some NGOs – even entering Libyan territorial waters (Figure 7).
On the one hand, this shift has relieved merchant marine ships crossing the Central Mediterranean of a significant disruption to their commercial activities.
On the other hand, it has fundamentally changed the business model of people smugglers by creating a new opportunity structure that makes it cheaper (but no less risky) to reach EU territory.
As recently as 2014, people smugglers were still mainly making use of larger vessels – wooden boats, fishing vessels or decommissioned commercial vessels – that they manned themselves and that were, for the most part, able to reach Italian shores without having to rely on rescue operations. Since 2016, however, smugglers have switched to mainly placing people on cheap and completely unseaworthy inflatable dinghies that have no prospect of ever reaching the Italian shores. The smugglers themselves no longer embark on these boats, but leave it to those on board to navigate from the Libyan coast to a place where they can call for help via satellite phones and wait to be picked up.
In practice, this means that the majority of irregular immigrants and refugees arriving in Italy are now actually being transported most of the way on vessels provided by European navies, coast guards and NGOs – thereby facilitating the work of the smugglers. At the same time, the number of smugglers arrested during SAR operations is, unsurprisingly, declining.20
This change in dynamics partly explains why irregular flows were actually much smaller prior to the start of highly-publicised, large-scale maritime surveillance operations (Figure 1), whether these were led by Italy (Mare Nostrum, Mare Sicuro), by NGOs or organised as joint European operations (Frontex/Triton and EUNavFor/Sophia).
The fact that such unseaworthy dinghies now account for 70% of all boats leaving the Libyan coast (Figure 8) also explains why the number of people dead or missing is still high and rising despite rescue efforts moving ever closer to the Libyan coast. And, in the absence of experienced navigators on board, casualties caused by navigation errors and incompetence have been growing.
Most casualties now take place between Western Libya and Malta (Figure 9).
Urgent action required
With 4,579 lives lost in the Central Mediterranean in 2016,21and many more people risking and losing their lives in their attempts to cross the Sahara before ever reaching the Libyan coast, humanitarian concerns remain a critical issue. Against this backdrop, emergency responses, including SAR operations, are likely to remain an important part of the solution in the short term.
However, the drawbacks of SAR operations as they are currently carried out by European naval forces, coast guards and NGOs must be acknowledged with a view to stemming the numbers of irregular crossings. A purely humanitarian approach will not suffice to resolve the situation in the longer term.22
Addressing irregular migration and refugee flows in the Central Mediterranean is also a clear political priority for Europe.23 Indeed, although progress has been made in terms of the registration, identification and reception of migrants, the persistent high levels of irregular arrivals in Europe leads many citizens to question public authorities’ ability to effectively manage borders and guarantee their security. It also poses a formidable challenge to reinstating the proper functioning of the Schengen area of border-free travel.
Now that flows from Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria are – at least temporarily – under control, the Central Mediterranean route is in the focus of attention as it has become the main gate of entry for irregular migrants arriving in the EU. Indeed, in contrast to Greece, Italy remains an attractive destination for irregular migrants and refugees wanting to move to Western Europe.
Of course, it will never be possible to prevent all irregular movements across the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, several options – none of which are mutually exclusive – are available to the EU and its Member States in order to create a systemically viable solution.24 Any measures considered to channel and stem the flows must be taken in full respect of human rights, European values and humanitarian obligations towards people in need of protection.
The first option – and probably the most effective from a pure border-control perspective – is for the EU to negotiate an agreement with Libya (and possibly also with Egypt) on the better enforcement of exit controls (option 1). Such an agreement could, for instance, foresee that asylum claims for the EU Member States could be registered and assessed by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) inside Libya.25 It could also regulate the return of third-country nationals having departed from Libyan coasts.
However, it is unlikely that there will be, in the near future, a central government in Libya that would have the full authority to implement a negotiated solution or to guarantee that human rights (in particular the rights of migrants and refugees) are fully respected (Box 1). What’s more, it seems unlikely that the EU NavFor Med/Sophia operation would get the necessary permission from Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) or a United Nations’ mandate enabling it to enter Libyan territorial waters directly, to support a revived Libyan Coast Guard.
The second option – which is less ambitious but perhaps more realistic in the shorter term – is to provide assistance to Libya to better manage migration flows. This would entail building on ongoing efforts by the European Commission26 and some Member States, including (a) providing continued training and material support to a revived Libyan Coast Guard;27 (b) linking the Libyan Coast Guard with other Coast Guards operating in North Africa and the Mediterranean;28 (c) supporting efforts to control Libyan land borders29 and (d) closing existing detention camps that are controlled by smugglers’ networks, with awful living conditions that currently do not meet minimal standards30 and eventually setting up reception facilites for third-country nationals31 (option 2).
However, as neither options 1 or 2 would halt irregular migration flows in the immediate future, it will remain necessary to continue SAR operations, while taking measures aimed at limiting their unintended consequences. All relevant European actors engaged in rescue operations need to be involved in the reflection on the current modus operandi. A dialogue among state and non-state actors (including relevant NGOs) should be initiated to discuss the options and their implications.
In this regard, one solution (option 3) could be to give SAR actors the possibility to disembark migrants and refugees outside the EU/Schengen area (e.g. in a North African country, but not in Libya). This option of external processing would require the creation of safe and secure spaces, where shelter, proper identification, due process and the full respect of human rights are guaranteed. And this is in fact a major obstacle. Unlike Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Pakistan (which already host very large numbers of refugees from neighbouring countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria), North African, Middle Eastern and Sahel countries are currently either extremely reluctant or simply unwilling to properly host and process economic migrants and refugees from other parts of Africa who want to go to Europe. Hence, the willingness of the EU and its Member States to provide support for the establishment of adequate multi-purpose reception facilities, both financially and with human resources, as well as through a credible resettlement mechanism, would be key pre-requirements for this third option to materialise.
Another option (option 4)would be to continue disembarking migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean at Italian ports, but scaling up the efficiency of hotspots where their identity is checked and their status is determined. And it would require keeping irregular migrants and refugees temporarily in closed facilities in order to prevent them from absconding while their status is processed. However, this option would neither reduce the number of crossings, nor the pressure on the most affected Member States, like Italy (and potentially Malta). Furthermore, the implementation of option 4 presents a number of challenges. Firstly, Italy is still waiting for a practical answer to its legitimate request for an effective EU-wide solution. This would require some form of financial compensation, additional human resources supporting Italian migration and asylum services, and a functioning EU-wide relocation system, either based on the agreed temporary relocation mechanism32 or on a ‘coalition of willing Member States’, offering substantial relocation places.
Secondly, the lack of a well-functioning European return policy for those migrants who do not qualify for asylum and/or have no valid residency permit presents a major obstacle.33 The reality is that it is not always easy to establish the identities and nationalities of arriving migrants, a large number of whom come to Europe without passports or other means of identification. Even when this can be achieved, it remains difficult to convince major sending countries to expeditiously process the return of their citizens whose asylum claims are rejected or who are not seeking asylum.34 The inability to swiftly distinguish those who are in genuine need of protection and qualify for asylum from those who do not has made the implementation of an effective EU-wide relocation system even more difficult. Nonetheless, in the long term, a credible European return policy could pave the way to a fully-fledged European relocation system, while also reducing the number of Africans risking their lives and paying multiples of regular travel costs when seeking to cross the Sahara and the Central Mediterranean.
Finally, given the political and economic realities faced by many migrants, and the mounting demographic pressures on the African continent, it remains clear that the only real long-term solution will be to pro-actively address the situation in the countries of origin of migrants themselves (option 5).35 The EU and its Member States are already seeking to do this via the Partnership Framework launched in June 2016, which aims at targeted cooperation with key countries of origin and transit,36and they have a range of instruments at hand. These include institutionalised dialogues on migration, visa facilitation (travel) and contingents of work permits (temporary labour migration), as well as increased overseas development assistance (ODA), better access to EU markets (trade) and improved access to foreign investment (in particular through the forthcoming European External Investment Plan37), with a view to stimulating job creation and economic growth, as an alternative to emigration. Developing legal avenues for pre-selected labour migrants to move from Africa to Europe (including the issuance of permits for temporary and circular migration) would most likely also serve to reduce irregular flows.
The EU and its Member States must make use of all these instruments in a more coherent and strategic way so as to respond to both positive and negative developments on the ground.
Recent history has demonstrated that a purely humanitarian approach to irregular migration flows in the Central Mediterranean, focusing only on saving the lives of those in immediate distress, will not bring about a long-term solution to the plight of the thousands of migrants risking their lives on a daily basis in the hope of a better way of life. If anything, the rise in the death toll and in the number of arrivals show that this approach has – unintentionally – encouraged smugglers to adopt new strategies enabling them to reap more benefits, while placing migrants even more at risk.
To put an end to the humanitarian crisis and regain control over external borders, the EU and its Member States must put in place a holistic response, making use of the different instruments they have at hand in a flexible, coordinated and agile manner, and in dialogue with sending and transit countries, as well as relevant non-governmental actors.
Although the complexity of the situation in Libya limits the scope for an all-encompassing deal on irregular migration similar to that which was negotiated with Turkey, the EU and its Member States do have meaningful policy options at hand that can help to improve the situation in the short term, while working in parallel with countries of origin to deliver longer-term solutions.
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