Is the EU’s migration policy in the Central Mediterranean doomed?

Andoni Hormaza is a 2nd year International Relations student from Spain. His interests include international development, global migration and international law. He is also passionate about music, photography and writing.

The economic and health cost of Covid-19 has eclipsed the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean. Back in May, an article published on IR Today showed how the current crisis has exacerbated the perilous situation in the Mediterranean, with the response being increased hostility from bordering European countries. Now, the issue has resurfaced on several fronts. Most notably – and amidst a recent uptick in the number of migrant crossings in the English Channel – the UK’s Home Secretary has vowed to make the route across the Channel ‘unviable’, despite UNHCR’s concern that these measures not only violate international law, but harbour the potential for greater harm. 

The manifold root causes, motives, and journeys make global migration a complex phenomenon. In the Mediterranean, however, there is one route that repeatedly stands out from the rest for its death toll and inherent danger.

The Central Mediterranean route continues to be, on average, the deadliest migration route in the world. While the protracted Libyan Civil War has exacerbated regional insecurity, three main migration routes come together in Libya, making the country the most dangerous andthe most transited gateway into Europe. And although the number of migrants reaching European shores dropped during the first months of the pandemic, July figures are comparable to those of last year, bringing the problem back into focus. 

The story of Libya’s partnership with the European Union is a complex one. Back in 2013, Italy started Mare Nostrum, a comprehensive military initiative with the twofold objective of ensuring the livelihood of migrants attempting the hazardous crossing and persecuting human traffickers and smugglers. Initially, it received praise from institutions such as the International Organization for Migration, who lauded it for its pointed humanitarian focus.

However, the Operation was replaced a year later by an EU-wide initiative, spearheaded by Frontex, the EU’s Border Agency. Operation Triton, recently revamped as Operation Themis, involved less than a third of its predecessor’s cost. With the number of deaths at sea at historic levels, criticism reached an all-time high in 2016, when the EU began outsourcing migration responsibilities to Libya’s Coast Guard, accused of a variety of crimes, ranging from blatant human rights violations to hindering volunteer rescue operations. 

Nonetheless, the EU itself has received very similar accusations. Last year, a group of international lawyers submitted a legal document to the ICC, accusing the EU of ‘crimes against humanity’. Moreover, with the privilege of hindsight, it remains difficult to allocate blame on a single actor. While it is true that the number of casualties rose after Operation Triton was implemented, 2015 also saw a 385% increase in the number of migrants, compared to two years earlier. The opposite is true with regards to Frontex’s alleged ‘success’ in reducing the number of arrivals in 2017 and 2018, after outsourcing its responsibilities to Libya’s Coast Guard in the Central Mediterranean. While accurate, this also coincided both with an increase in the death risk and the number of interceptions at sea.

In the search for middle ground, outsourcing some responsibilities needn’t be an issue per se. If done correctly, outsourcing could promote cooperation to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches migrants, asylum seekers are able to safely process their claims, checks are put in place to curb smuggling and legal pathways are enhanced.

The underlying problem with the EU’s current approach is twofold. Firstly, there has been a clear lack of internal cooperation, hindered by European law itself. For instance, the current Dublin Regulation generally requires the first EU country of arrival to examine asylum applications. In theory, the objective was to speed up and simplify the application process. In practice, this has promoted a crippled system where responsibility is unequally shared, fuelling regional resentment and facilitating the emergence of populist discourses.  

Secondly, there has been a clear negligence in the EU’s external cooperation. In the case of Libya, the country has remained largely unstable since a NATO-backed military uprising overthrew long-time ruler Gaddafi in 2011. Split into east and west-administrations, the country has seen a mix of foreign involvement, deployment of mercenaries and even ISIL control over Mediterranean strongholds such as Sirte, well into 2016. Despite this, the EU decided to mobilize more than €338 million over a 5-year period for migration-related projects in Libya. It is worth noting one of the cornerstones of the EU’s asylum policy, codified in 2005, is that any collaboration with external countries must be conditional on said state being a ‘safe third country’. With over 1.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, and accusations of gross human rights violations on both warring sides, it is clear this criterion has not been met.

Finally, NGOs also harbour an immense potential for cooperation, largely neglected by European authorities. At the time of writing, three vessels from three different NGOs remained impounded on Italian shores, under vague accusations of ‘technical and operational irregularities’. The trend towards curbing NGO involvement, which is aimed at filling a perceived humanitarian gap, forms part of a broader, widespread conviction that NGOs serve as an important pull factor for migrants. However, a recent study by the European University Institute has shown the clear lack of correlation between the number of departures from Libya and the % of migrants rescued by NGOs.

While this combination of internal and external shortcomings does indeed provide a bleak picture, recent events might shed a more hopeful note. On the internal front, and after arduous negotiations, EU member states managed to reach a historic deal on a post-Covid recovery package, made up of €750bn in grants and loans. Cooperation is also apparent in the procurement of a potential vaccine, with the first fruitful agreement occurring on August 14th. This agreement particularlyhighlights the need for solidarity with other non-European lower and middle-income countries. In the arena of migration, recent developments also show promise. At the start of 2020, the European Commission published a proposal for a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, while acknowledging the shortcomings of the Dublin III regulations. This awareness, coupled with the desire for reform, provides an opportunity for much-needed change, particularly with regards to transparency, equal responsibility among member states and increased cooperation with NGOs. This last point in particular can pave the way towards a ‘new’ type of externalization.

And while the ongoing pandemic might lead one to doubt whether there is hope for cooperation expanding beyond European borders, it is worth noting that the atmosphere was as pessimistic up to two days before the pivotal economic recovery agreement, with headlines largely taking for granted that the deal was due to fail.

Externally, the recent ceasefire announcement in Libya should also be taken as a hopeful sign of the potential for regional stability. Both the Tripoli-based GNA and its rival, eastern-based House of Representatives called on all parties to respect the truce, with the former stressing the need for the withdrawal of foreign forces and for democratic elections to be held in March 2021. While previous ceasefires have backfired, there is hope that the Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened consensus. The recent adoption of UN Security Council 2532, calling for a global humanitarian ceasefire, reaffirms this.

A strengthened and more transparent EU migration policy won’t end migration. Neither will a more stable Libya. But this shouldn’t be the objective, as migration will always be an eminently human phenomenon. Collective cooperation, subject to certain standards, needs to be promoted to ensure that migrants can travel safely, and asylum seekers are able to file their petitions in an informed and just manner. A peaceful and stable Libya would constitute a step in the right direction towards a safer region and open the door for a more transparent form of international cooperation. In the wake of Covid-19 and the looming climate threat, we need more multilateralism and solidarity, not less. Only then will we be able to stand a chance against future crises.


‘A Chance for Much Needed Legal Pathways to the EU?’ Red Cross EU. 19 June 2020.,urgently%20address%20the%20specific%20needs.

Bathke, Benjamin. ‘3 NGOs Warn of Escalation in Mediterranean If Their Vessels Are Not Released for Duty’. InfoMigrants, 8 April 2020.

———. ‘Lawyers Blame EU Migrant Policy for Crimes against Humanity’. InfoMigrants, 6 March 2019.

———. ‘When Helping Hurts – Libya’s Controversial Coast Guard, Europe’s Go-to Partner to Stem Migration’. InfoMigrants, 24 July 2019.

Bienfait, Isabelle. ‘How “the COVID-19 Excuse” Leaves Many at Risk in the Mediterranean’.International Relations Today, 18 May 2020.

‘Coronavirus: Commission Reaches First Agreement on a Potential Vaccine’. European Commission, 14 August 2020.

‘Coronavirus: EU Leaders Reach Recovery Deal after Marathon Summit’. BBC News, 21 July 2020.

‘COUNCIL Directive 2005/85/EC on Minimum Standards on Procedures in Member States for Granting and Withdrawing Refugee Status’. Official Journal of the European Union, 12 January 2005.

‘Country Responsible for Asylum Application (Dublin)’. European Commission, n.d.

Cusumano, Eugenio, and Matteo Villa. ‘Sea Rescue NGOs: A Pull Factor of Irregular Migration?’ Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, 22 November 2019.

Davies, Lizzy, and Arthur Neslen. ‘Italy: End of Ongoing Sea Rescue Mission “Puts Thousands at Risk”’. The Guardian, 31 October 2014.

‘EU Cooperation on Migration in Libya’. European Commission, December 2018.

‘Europe: Flow Monitoring’. International Organization for Migration, 20 August 2020.

Gill, Joanna, and Shona Murray. ‘EU Summit: Talks Are “deadlocked” Says Italy’s Conte’. Euronews, 19 July 2020.

‘IOM Applauds Italy’s Life-Saving Mare Nostrum Operation: “Not a Migrant Pull Factor”’. MissingMigrants. n.d.

‘Libya’. UNHCR, 23 October 2017.

‘Libya: Events of 2019’. Human Rights Watch, 2020.

‘Libyan Forces Claim Control of ISIL Stronghold of Sirte’. Al Jazeera, 12 June 2016.

‘Libya’s UN-Recognised Government Announces Immediate Ceasefire’. Al Jazeera, 22 August 2020.

‘Mare Nostrum Operation’. Ministero Della Difesa: Marina Militare, n.d.

McLennan, William. ‘Channel Crossings: Why Can’t the UK Stop Migrants in Small Boats?’ BBC News, 20 August 2020.

‘Migratory Routes: Central Mediterranean Route’. Frontex, n.d.

Sakuma, Amanda. ‘Libya: Damned for Trying’. MSNBC, n.d., sec.

‘Stalled Security Council Resolution Adopted, Backing UN’s Global Humanitarian Ceasefire’. UN News, 7 January 2020.

‘The Central Mediterranean Route: The Deadliest Migration Route’. reliefweb, 4 February 2018.

‘Towards an Effective and Principled EU Migration Policy’. Human Rights Watch, 18 June 2018.

‘UNHCR, IOM: Interception at Sea Is Not the Solution to Channel Crossings’. UNHCR, 13 August 2020.

Image credits:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s