By Alexander Casella
GENEVA — Four years after having brought about the fall of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, Europe is having to come to terms with the law of unintended consequences. Removing Gadhafi was essentially the Obama’s administration doing, acting through NATO with the support of France and the UK and was supposed to usher in Libya an era of freedom and democracy. That it would lead to the collapse of the Libyan state and bring about a fragmentation of the country was something that the planners in Washington visibly overlooked. And so was the fact that Libya, after having been a country of immigration would become one of the main avenues for illegal immigration to Europe. With the US shielded by geography, it is now America’s allies that are left carrying the baby namely a massive wave of illegal immigrants coming through Libya, which they are proving increasingly unable to address.
High oil revenues, a visa-free regime and a low population level, had made of Libya a preferred destination for sub-Saharan Africans seeking employment and it was estimated that, at any given time some 2 million foreigners were working in the country. That some, among this number, would want to move illegally to Italy was a given, albeit one that was under control. Over the years the Italian authorities had worked out several arrangements with Gadhafi, some formal and some informal which provided that he would keep the lid on transit migration through Libya. Moreover, since 2009 Gadhafi accepted to take back illegal migrants intercepted by the Italian on the high sea, a move which while not quite consonant with the Refugee Conventions acted as a further deterrent to irregular movement.
All these arrangements collapsed with the fall of Gadhafi and literarily overnight the country became the preferred access route for illegal migration to Italy. With the number of boats, all heading to Italy and more specifically to the island of Lampedusa, increasing, so did the number of sinkings. By 2012 loss of life was estimated in the thousands and the rescue by the Italian Coast Guard of drifting, overloaded migrant boats became a daily occurrence. With Italian public opinion becoming increasingly concerned the Italian government launched, in October 2013 operation “Mare Nostrum”, a massive rescue at sea effort which is credited with having saved, in one year, over 120 000 lives, all of whom were landed in Italy. By comparison, in the years prior to the fall of Gadhafi, the number of those intercepted by the Italian Coast Guard was below 40 000 practically all of whom were returned to Libya
While the rescue operation, which has now been taken over by the European Union could not be faulted on humanitarian grounds it left unanswered two question: first whether the publicity given to the operation would not encourage others to put their lives at risk and, second what to do with the saved. This, obviously this was not of Italy’s concern were it only for the fact that most of the migrants would ultimately move north to Germany, Switzerland or Scandinavia. Thus, the operation does not appear to have comprised any strategic thinking.
With the fall of Gadhafi having turned Libya into an open gate to Europe, the same phenomena developed in the Eastern Mediterranean involving this time Syria, Turkey and Greece.
As of today, the conflict in Syria has generated some 7.5 million internally displaced, in addition to some 3.8 million refugees who sought asylum in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. While the overwhelming majority initially stayed in the camps which were set up to shelter them, a combination of lack of hope in the future, frustration, poor living conditions and despair is inducing an increasing number to try to move to Europe. The movement went at first unnoticed by the Europeans and essentially used Libya as a stepping-stone. By early 2015 numbers exploded as a new migration route emerged going through Turkey, then the island of Kos in Greece, from there to Athens and than onwards trough Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary with Germany and Sweden as the preferred final destinations. Currently it is estimated that some 2000 Syrian per day are crossing into Hungary, the first European country on their route which is a member of the Schengen free-movement area and Germany is bracing itself for an inflow of some 800 000 arrivals before the end of the year.
Confronted with an issue, which for some of its members is fuelling an increasingly contentious internal political debate Europe as such, it has emerged, does not exist.
There are on one hand the countries of entry, namely Spain, Italy and Greece with weak economies and dysfunctional governments who are quite content to let the arrivals land and then move on to central and northern Europe.
There are then the likes of Bulgaria, Romania, Poland and the Baltic states to which no one wishes to emigrate and which are neither part of the problem nor of the solution. Finally there are the countries of destination such as Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Austria, which bear the weight of the bulk of the arrivals.
Faced with an inflow, which is for all practical purposes out of control the question that is increasingly, being raised in the countries of destination is whether, over the next years or decades the influx can be sustained. Or in other words are these the migrants that Europe needs and can they be absorbed, economically and socially without bringing about a major disruption to the values and social order prevailing in Western Europe.
As of today, the answer is negative, but with one caveat. It is a weak, disorganized, erratic and above all unthinking negative.
To whit the recent EC proposals that illegal arrivals be redistributed among the European countries appears little short than the product of a hallucination. Not only was the proposal rejected by a majority of countries but also unless the arrival were to be put in detention there was nothing to guarantee that the those concerned would remain in the less attractive countries they would be allocated to.
Further compounding the issue, European national societies do not react uniformly to a foreign population inflow, albeit one that occurs outside the rule of law and is thus uncontrolled. By and large, Mediterranean countries with less structured not to say dysfunctional administration and week social safety nets tend to be less adverse to a foreign inflow than their northern counterparts. Indeed as one moves north, European democracies tend to be less forgiving of violations of immigration regulations and trade unions make it a point to ensure that no one gets hired at a cut-rate salary. Conversely, social benefits for asylum seekers and illegal aliens are so generous and mandatory repatriation of illegal immigrants so few and far between that there is little incentive for an illegal alien not to register with the authorities.
With the Europeans divided into inaction, or nibbling at the periphery of the problem but incapable of coming to grips with its substance, the international system has shown itself equally inept.
Neither the United Nations and its various components nor the European Commission have shown the foresight or simply the common sense to try to realistically come to terms with a crisis, which affects three continents and was three years in the making.
Assuming that the current situation is in the long term untenable does not contradict the fact that while the problem is European the solution involves three continents namely Africa, The Middle East and Europe. To this effect the Europeans will have to establish a partnership with other national actors, which in turn will involve not only financial commitment but also some ruthless arm-twisting.
Pending a solution there is no escaping from the fact that Europe has for all practical purposes forfeited the control of its borders. All an African, an Arab, an Afghan or a Pakistani who wants to immigrate to Europe has to do is to find the funds to pay a people smuggler. Granted the journey will be arduous, and at time dangerous but with some luck he will be rescued from a sinking craft in the Mediterranean by the Italian navy or transported by the Greek authorities from the island of Kos to the mainland. From there will be few impediments to his making way to Sweden, Germany or Switzerland where once arrived he will be housed, fed, provided with medical care and, above all will be able to look to the future with some hope.
Given the state of poverty, disorder, lawlessness, corruption, lack of opportunity and insecurity that prevails where he left from, it is surprising that more did not chose this path. But they might. Which will find the Europeans having to continue to pay the price for what was, at its inception a policy designed in Washington, which ended up by destabilizing the whole Mediterranean.
Dr Alexander Casella is a Swiss journalist and academic who has been writing on Asian and Middle-Eastern affairs since the mid 1960s. He also served for 20 years with the UN refugee agency where his last post was Director for Asia. He is the author of Breaking the Rules, an account of his years with the UN.