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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Why there's been a dramatic drop in refugee numbers to Europe

A militia in a Libyan town that used to mobilise the people-smuggling trade is now being paid by governments to prevent migrants from departing

Migrants languish at an illegal immigration authority in Tripoli, Libya. Hani Amara / Reuters
Migrants languish at an illegal immigration authority in Tripoli, Libya. Hani Amara / Reuters

In a year full of calamities, there is one that has failed to happen: Europe’s summer migration crisis. Indeed, as the northern summer has gone on, the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa by boat has fallen dramatically.

The latest statistics from the United Nations refugee agency show that the expected crisis was looming in June, with 23,500 migrants crossing to Italy. The next month, it dropped to 11,400 and by August, to just 3,900. And August is usually the busiest time of the year, before the weather turns.

It seems like someone had waved a magic wand. The Washington Post earlier this month headlined an article, “The mysterious drop in the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean”.

There is no mystery now, but there are some key aspects that no European government wants to talk about. Human rights organisations, by contrast, have a lot to say. And those who worry about the long-delayed pacification of Libya – the embarkation point for most migrants headed for Italy – also have concerns.

The timing of the stemming of the flow of destitute people seeking a better life in Europe is not coincidental. The migrant problem has dropped off the TV screens ahead of the German election on Sunday, when chancellor Angela Markel is running for a fourth term. As for Italy, the weak centre-left government is facing an election early next year amid fears that continued unrestricted immigration would sweep the far right into power in Rome.

Two years ago, the usually cautious Mrs Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan traipsing through the Balkans in search of shelter and safety. “We can do this,” she said, becoming Europe’s paragon of generosity and internationalism.

When the enormity of the problem of turning 900,000 aliens into German citizens became clear, she switched tack, concluding in March 2015 a “dirty deal” with Turkey to cut the flow of migrants into Greece, while the frontiers throughout the Balkans became a patchwork of barbed wire.

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As the focus this year has moved to the Libya-Italy route, the roads into Austria and France were heavily policed to stop migrants moving north into the European heartland. Italy – the former colonial power in Libya that has been left almost alone coping with the problem – was given the go-ahead to do what it could on the other side of the Mediterranean.

There are two main elements to the plan: states, such as Niger on Libya’s southern border, are being helped to beef up security to prevent migrants moving north. This is a huge task – the tribes who live in the desert areas have few sources of revenue or jobs beyond smuggling people and contraband. And they will always have more money and faster vehicles than the border guards.

The long-term the plan is to check the identities of would-be asylum seekers in Africa, before they set foot on European soil, a task that European countries cannot achieve even at home.

The second element is on the coast. Italy has strengthened the coast guard operated by the fragile, UN-approved unity government in Tripoli headed by Fayez Al Serraj. The rescue vessels operated by well-meaning charities, towards which the smugglers would direct their overloaded boats of migrants, have been ordered away from the coast. This has led to a dramatic cut in the number of drownings, though that is not the primary purpose of the policy.

Murkier is what is happening on shore. A militia in the Libyan town of Sabratha, which used to control the people-smuggling trade, is now working with the unity government to prevent migrants from departing, locking them up in insanitary jails. Even young men who look like migrants are rounded up and detained.

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More on the migrant crisis

Libyan PM denies granting access to Italian ships

Leaders urge migrant screening in Africa to stem Med crossings

The flaws in Europe’s plan to tackle refugee trafficking from Libya

Aid groups halt rescue operations off Libyan coast

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Clearly, a lot of European money is going in a roundabout way to buy off thugs who would otherwise be profiting from people-smuggling. One can only guess at the calculations made by the Italian secret service to purchase their co-operation. Receipts are not required, since the European Union has been assured that there will never be evidence of money going to armed militias.

A northern European official was sniffy about these arrangements. “We know the Italians – always the first to pay a ransom.”

That is unfair. In an unequal world, a wealthy region with an unguarded border will always attract mass migration. And in this situation, the Italians have been left alone, the other 27 members of the EU shamelessly unwilling to take more than a handful of the migrants.

Even the European Union – supposedly a beacon of human rights observance - recognises that the migrants stranded in Libya suffer inhumane treatment.

So belatedly, Brussels has found an emergency remedy for Europe’s migration problem, which has calmed the German electorate and ensured Mrs Merkel a clear path to victory. Will this sticking plaster last until the Italian elections early next year?

What is certain is that such reactive policies are expensive in the short term and damaging in the long term. The militias can blackmail the unity government, even as they grow rich and powerful enough to challenge it. Who knows, they may end up smuggling more migrants to the coast just so they can lock them up and prove their worth as coast guards.

The corrosive effect will be felt far and wide. In Zuwara, 45 kilometers to the west of Subratha and formerly a major migration hub, local people took it upon themselves to drive the people smugglers out, apparently unbribed. Such civic initiatives of the type that Libya so desperately needs cannot survive when bundles of cash are handed out to be bandits.

Libya still suffers from two rival governments and a plethora of militias vying for primacy. While it meets some European concerns, the anti-migration policy does not restore Libya as a working state. On the contrary, it probably will make it harder for the unity government to succeed.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

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