Migration Summit Yields Some Optimism, But Success Depends on Libya

In a show of solidarity, the heads-of-state from Europe’s Big Four—France, Spain, Italy and Germany—met in Paris recently with the UN-backed Libyan leader, and the heads-of-state of Chad and Niger, to tackle the ongoing migration crisis.

Some of the proposed measures of the mini-summit include support for the construction of a border wall in Libya, increasing development funding to Niger and Chad to provide alternative employment opportunities to smugglers, European Union support to improve the conditions of detention facilities in Libya—notorious for human rights abuses—and creating a legal channel for migrant resettlement in Europe by pre-screening the most vulnerable asylum-seekers at “hot-spots” in Niger and Chad. 

Despite a lack of formal EU commitments to the measures discussed by the seven countries, informed observers appear optimistic that the strong message and provisions adopted by the summit participants will likely discourage undocumented migration to Europe—at least in the short term.  Any long-term success, however, is heavily contingent on Libya’s cooperation and stability, raising concerns among human rights organizations who worry about the treatment and conditions facing migrants in detention facilities—most of which are controlled by various militia groups—in Libya.

According to Tuesday Reitano, the head of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, the summit’s declarations are already having an impact on the militias in Libya, many of whom have reportedly shifted their efforts from operating detention facilities and smuggling migrants, to deterring migrant crossings. 

“There’s a lot of leverage politically speaking at this juncture.  Whether or not it will result in positive sustainable results in the longer-term is another story.”  she said. “There’s a lot of sensitivity among militias and other political actors in Libya to ensure they end up on the right side. No one wants to get scapegoated for the entire smuggling trade by the EU or the International Criminal Court. The question then is what the militias will now do to ensure that doesn’t happen, for none of the right reasons.” 

Any long-term efficacy, however, will depend on Libya’s political stability. “The larger political process in Libya is still quite fragile and volatile,” said Reitano. “But I would say that there is very little doubt that large-scale migrant returns would be a major deterrent for migrants.” 

The summit’s plan has also sounded alarms within the human rights community which has long maintained that conditions in Libya’s detention facilities are inhumane. An Oxfam report published last month based on 285 testimonies of women and men arriving to Sicily from Libya found that 84% of the migrants interviewed had suffered some sort of inhumane treatment while in Libya—including extreme violence, rape and torture. Now that the Libyan coastguard and militias have explicit support of the Italian government—and, in the view of these human rights groups the EU—to stop migrants from leaving Libya at all costs, human rights organizations fear that migrant conditions could well get worse.  

“The conditions in Libya are those of a living hell,” said Elisa Bacciotti, Oxfam’s Director of Campaigns and Programming in Italy, and one of the leads for the report. “And now, thanks to the activism of the Libyan coastguard, people who were fleeing this situation are being brought back to Libyan detention facilities, and are really at risk of suffering extreme human rights abuses and pain.” 

Although one of the summit’s talking points involved dedicated European Union funding to improving migrant detention facilities in Libya, Open Society Fellow Giuliani Lagana is skeptical. 

“In order to improve conditions in detention centers, you have to have access—and that’s something that international organizations just don’t have right now,” she said.  

Currently, according to Lagana, Doctors Without Borders is the only international organization operating within Libya with foreign staff. Thanks to the code-of-conduct restricting the actions of non-governmental organizations, their access to detention facilities has recently dropped, from 11 centers to four.   

“Whatever funding the EU directs to the Libyan government to restrict migrant flows needs to have heavy caveats,” said Lagana. “They should guarantee access to detention facilities by international organizations—only then can conditions have any hope of improvement.”  

At the policy level, the summit signaled a more hardline approach to Europe’s migration crisis—perhaps in anticipation of upcoming elections in Germany and Italy.  

Yet, UNHCR Senior Communications Office for Europe Cecíl Pouilly lauded the mini-summit for its nod to the need for a comprehensive approach to tackling Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis that included additional development funds be allocated to source countries. “There is a need for a long-term solution, and any plan of action should address root causes,” she said. 

However, Giulia Lagana, Senior Policy Analyst of EU Migration and Asylum Policies at Open Society European Policy Institute, said that despite lip-service to development and human rights goals, true aims of the conference were clear: “This was about discouraging undocumented migration to Europe, not about protecting migrants in any way.” She said, “The rest was just window-dressing.”

Malia Politzer is a freelance journalist based in Europe, where she reports on migrant and refugee issues. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Granada’s Institute for Migration Studies.

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