The African exodus to Europe just beginning
A summer of mass drownings in the Mediterranean is in store unless anarchy in Libya ends, says Dan O'Brien
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
'The Mediterranean is Europe's soft underbelly". That was an expression I heard repeated countless times when I worked as a diplomat for the EU in that part of the world in the 1990s.
Attempting to make the region - from Morocco to Lebanon - more stable was an explicit EU policy objective. It was believed that helping to make the states on the southern and eastern shore of the Mediterranean more prosperous and more democratic would lessen the threats they posed to Europe.
The policy was not a success. For years, North Africa's strong men showed no sign of going anywhere. Gaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt and Ben-Ali in Tunisia continued their autocratic ways, paying no more than lip service - if even that - to the EU's human-rights-laced agenda.
The years passed and their regimes did not collapse. And then they did. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in a suburb of Tunis, set himself alight in protest against the authorities. He set the southern and eastern rims of the Mediterranean basin alight, too. The Arab Spring had begun.
Just as so many briefing notes and learned analyses predicted in the 1990s, a collapse in any of the dictatorships in the southern Mediterranean would quickly affect Europe. Terrorism would increase and oil and gas would stop flowing. Populations would take to boats in large numbers to escape it all. And people from further afield seeking a better life in Europe would be drawn towards the vacuum, despite the risks involved of entering a zone of anarchy and the risks of drowning in the crossing to Europe. That is exactly what has transpired. Only it is worse than imagined back then, because migration flows have increased since the 1990s and because extremism has become more prevalent and more virulent.
Of the three North African countries affected, only in Tunisia has the political outcome been an improvement on what went before. After a period of mayhem, Egypt is back where it was, having replaced one anti-Islamist dictator with another. But it is Libya where a huge gash has been torn in Europe's soft underbelly. It is now a failed state. And with nearly 2,000 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline, it is the launch pad for the tens of thousands of would-be migrants who seek to make the crossing to Europe.
The huge number of drownings in the Mediterranean in recent days and weeks has finally got the attention of the Europe Union, culminating in an emergency summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday. The meeting, though largely for optics, marked the ending of the hope that the problem would resolve itself.
Last year's decision to dramatically scale back an EU-backed Italian naval operation was acknowledged - implicitly, if not explicitly - to have failed in its objective of discouraging more migrants by heightening the risk of undertaking the crossing. Such are the 'push factors' in so many countries propelling people towards Europe and such is the chaos in Libya that now more people than ever are prepared to try their luck by putting to sea from Libya.
Europe's interests and values demand a change of tack. EU leaders last week agreed to triple the resources available to Triton, the EU border mission in the Central Mediterranean. They also said that they would go after people smugglers more aggressively (including destroying their boats where possible) and take in some more refugees, however unpopular that is with large chunks of the populations of most countries.
But what has not been countenanced is greater European involvement in Libya itself, which is the epicentre of the problem. The most the leaders could manage is to say "we will actively support all UN-led efforts towards re-establishing government authority in Libya".
It is easy to see why there is such reluctance to intervene more actively. Britain and France intervened militarily in 2011 to prevent Gaddafi following through on his promise to take revenge on the population of Benghazi for rising up against his rule. Some blame that intervention for the failed state that now exists in Libya. The charge also implies that the lesser evil would have been to stand back and allow the dictator of more than three decades to slaughter large numbers of people.
But regardless of why, Libya is now in a state of chaos. The situation is bad for that country and bad for Europe. Restoring some kind of order would be in the interests of all concerned. There is no denying that achieving that is a daunting challenge. As recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations makes clear* the ever-changing factions within the country make it hard for outsiders to even know who to deal with.
But as the coming months are likely to show, without some stabilisation in the country, the wave of migration this summer will dwarf all previous ones. In all probability, the death toll will too.
Much of the scepticism about the prospects of external intervention achieving anything in North Africa is based on what has happened, and continues to happen in the Middle East, and in Syria and Iraq in particular. But such parallels may be too pessimistic.
One reason is size. Libya is a lot less populous than Syria and Iraq. Six million people live in the north African failed state, compared to 23 million in Syria and 33 million in Iraq. These demographics in no way mean that a European or Nato stabilisation force could be sure of success, but Libya is clearly a more manageable size.
The prospects of containing Libya's problems are also better, owing to the less porous nature of its borders. Syria's border with Iraq has effectively disappeared. By contrast, the Tunisian and Algerian security forces to Libya's west and their Egyptian counterparts to the east remain at least partially effective in containing spillover and limiting the flow of fighters and arms into the country. To the south the vast expanse of the Sahara makes access via that route difficult.
There is no certainty whatsoever that a more hands-on approach to restoring order to Libya would work, but it can be said with a high degree of certainty that if the country continues as it is, then it will remain a departure point for mass migration across the Mediterranean. The "push factors" driving people towards Europe from so many countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as Libya itself, are many and diverse. Addressing them all in a meaningful would not be possible even if Europe has infinitely more resources and will.
Libya is a bleeding wound in Europe's soft underbelly. Until the bleeding is staunched the scenes of mass migration and drownings in the Mediterranean will not end.
* www.ecfr.eu/article/ mapping_libyas_ factions311661
Navy planning for Med rescue role
THE Government offer to send a Naval Service patrol vessel to ‘assist’ in the Mediterranean refugee crisis follows the embarrassing episode in which Malta apparently declined the offer of one of our old decommissioned ships.
In March, the Minister for Defence offered to donate the 35-year-old LE Aoife to the Maltese government during a conference on the refugee crisis.
However, less than a month later, the offer was declined after Maltese military sources described the Aoife as ‘junk’ and unsuitable for any refugee rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
On Friday, Minister Simon Coveney announced that the Government was now offering to send one of the eight serving Naval Service patrol vessels. No further details were available as ‘technical’ discussions are under way, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defence said yesterday. On Friday, Mr Coveney offered to send one of the newer Naval Service vessels with crew “once the legal clarifications are received”. No decision had been made by yesterday as to which ship the task might be allocated.
The Minister said yesterday the Irish Navy’s experience in search and rescue missions “will be of huge benefit in undertaking a similar role in the Mediterranean”. He said on Friday the Navy has begun ‘operational and logistics planning’ for the Mediterranean mission but gave no indication of which ship is to be sent or when this will happen.