More than 181,000 people, most so-called “economic migrants” with little chance of being allowed to stay in Europe, attempted to cross the central Mediterranean last year from Libya, Africa’s nearest stretch of coast to Italy. About 4,500 died or disappeared.
Hundreds already have taken to the sea this month, braving the winter weather. In the latest reminder of the journey’s perils, more than 100 people were missing off Libya’s coast over the weekend after a migrant boat sunk.
The 28-nation EU already has a controversial deal to stem the flow of migrants from Turkey, which has agreed to try to stop the number of migrants leaving the country and to take back thousands more in exchange for billions of euros to help Syrian refugees in Turkey, visa-free travel for its citizens and fast-track EU membership talks.
Now, the EU wants to adapt this outsourcing pact to the African nations migrants are leaving or jumping off from to reach Europe, despite criticism that the agreement sends asylum seekers back to countries that could be unsafe for them.
The bottom line is that the Turkey deal works. The number of people arriving in the Greek islands, for instance, plunged over the last year despite political wrangling over whether Turkey’s government was respecting the conditions to secure visa-free travel in Europe’s Schengen area, where passport checks are not required.
Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Mali and Chad are all on the EU’s radar, and dealing with them is proving expensive. But the bloc’s arrangement with Turkey has shown that the best way of stemming migrant flows is to stop people taking to the sea. Libya and Egypt are the main migrant departure points, and pacts with them would probably have the biggest immediate impact.
“The reality of Libya right now is that there is no unified government controlling all parts of the country, and no end of groups willing to upend things if there is an advantage in it for them,” Carlo Binda, a Libya expert with Malta-based political and development advisers, Binda Consulting International.
Libya’s neighbor Egypt appears a more viable option. Many people have set out from the country bound for Europe in recent months, mainly migrants from the Horn of Africa trying to avoid dangerous Libya and increasingly Egyptians themselves, according to the EU’s border agency Frontex.
Egypt’s economy has been battered by unrest since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. If there is one thing the world’s biggest trading bloc does well, it is raise funds to pay for its problems.
“Egypt is the country with which one could come to some sort of agreement,” Maltese Foreign Minister George Vella said. “There is stability to a certain extent, and they are interested because even they themselves have got their own problem with migration.”
Time is of the essence. The EU has for several years tried to cobble together migration polices while people were dying at sea.