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Only a Comprehensive Approach Will Solve Europe’s Migration Crisis

Almost exactly a year ago today, I was in the heart of Agadez, a smuggling hub in Niger, interviewing smugglers and migrants preparing to cross the Saharan desert into Libya, where they would transfer to rubber dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. 

One of the smugglers was a Gambian named Khalid who got into the smuggling business over a decade ago in northern Morocco when he discovered that smuggling migrants and asylum-seekers was more lucrative than working in Europe. In those earlier days, the main route for migrants destined for Europe from sub-Saharan Africa was across Morocco’s land border into Spain by foot, or by crossing the nine-mile wide Straight of Gibraltar by dinghie to the Spanish mainland. Some ventured a bit further to the Canary islands. However, Spain and Morocco eventually shut down those routes and, with Libya’s collapse in the Arab Spring, the smugglers opened a new Europe route that crossed the country’s unguarded borders and onto Italy. A consummate businessman, Khalid left Morocco for Agadez, where he continued his trade.

Khalid’s story is a common one, and demonstrates why — in the absence of unified EU action — halting net migration to the continent is virtually impossible: as soon as one route closes, smugglers simply shift traffic to another route that’s less protected.  Right now, that route leads to Italy: nearly 95,000 migrants and asylum-seeker—the bulk of them from sub-Saharan Africa—have arrived on Italy’s shores this year, up 17% from 2016. At least 2,300 of them have died in the attempt, prompting Human Rights Watch to call the Mediterranean the deadliest migration route in the world.

Like Spain before it, and despite a mix of pleading and threats, Italy has been left to deal with the crisis pretty much on its own. Unlike the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, when Germany and Sweden were leading the movement to open their doors to refugees, today most of Europe’s countries are securing their borders to keep new arrivals out. France and Austria have stationed armed troops on their borders. Poland and Hungary have flatly refused to accept anyone (prompting lawsuits from the EU), and the Czech Republic—which initially grudgingly accepted 12 asylum seekers—has since slammed the door. As a result, since Italy cannot fend off the influx, it is no longer a country of transit, but a final destination. 

Italy’s pleas for support from the European Union have been all but ignored, leading the Italian Parliament to deploy naval vessels into Libyan waters to “aid” Libya’s coastguard, in an effort to deter migrant traffic. Italy has also introduced a controversial code of conduct that severely limits non-governmental organizations’ efforts to support search-and-rescue operations off Italy’s southern shores. Among other restrictions, NGO boats are forbidden to enter Libyan territorial waters to assist migrant vessels in danger of sinking. NGOs that refuse to sign the code of conduct (which the majority have refused to do) risk being banned from using Italian ports.

These measures have been controversial and divisive. Today, approximately 40% of all migrant rescues at sea are by private vessels, many of them run by NGOs. Limiting their movements will likely lead to more deaths. Nor are Libyans particularly happy at the prospect of the former colonial power sending naval vessels into their waters.

If history is any judge, Italy’s attempts are likely to fail. One of the tenants of migration theory are “push-pull” factors. Migrants and asylum-seekers leave their countries of origin because certain factors (poverty, war, corruption, oppression, famine, lack of work, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation) are pushing them to do so, and they ultimately seek refuge in places that are the culturally, politically and economically more attractive. In the case of legitimate asylum-seekers fleeing oppression, violence, and death, those ‘push factors’ are generally more urgent than the fear of deterrent strategies adopted by individual European states. 

The continuous traffic of migrants traveling through Libya to Europe (of whom the UNHCR estimates 30% would qualify for international protection), will only be solved when European Union member states can successfully address the push factors, rather than focusing on deterrence. The geographic reality of the European Union (where, until recently, internal borders were easily passable) also demands that border security is a unified effort, not one that leaves individual member states to fend for itself. 

Smugglers like Khalid who make a living by exploiting porous borders that lead into Europe, will only increase their prices as the routes become more complex. So long as his customers–refugees and asylum seekers alike–are determined to leave their home country, they will. And Khalid will find a way to get them where they want to go. 

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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