EU and the failure of “containment-and-storage” policies

The people’s mobility is destined to change the fate of Europe. The 2011 revolutionary movements, have shaken North Africa and Syria and thus provoked millions of refugees and asylum seekers; at the same time, Western countries’ borders have been closed. Thus migrants rely on criminal organizations to cross the Mediterranean towards the Italian coasts.

Anyway, Europe is a desired destination for millions of immigrants seeking access to the Schengen borders, even if the European economic crisis and the pre/post-revolutionary season of Middle East quadrant led to a reduction of economic migrants and to an increase in refugees and asylum seekers.

The political regimes and dictatorships in North Africa were “containment-and-storage” of immigration flows and they have been a filter for those who were looking for relief in the integration and welfare policies of the European States. At the same time, these regimes offered asylum to those who came from the sub-Saharan regions when escaping from atrocious persecutions in order to stop the flows toward the European Union and the West.

The Arab Springs should have led to the establishment of democracy but the tribal components are not ready for a similar solution, yet. Libya is a key country that is undergoing internal disorders and instability. The State’s absence and the power vacuum led to even more serious crisis with the phenomena of widespread violence and the inclusion of extreme fringes. The “buffer” is no longer able to contain the flows and migrants push like a domino effect from North Africa towards Europe and Italy due to this insecurity and chaos. Adm. Foffi, Italian Commander in Chief of the Fleet said: “The number of migrants that try to departure at sea is usually proportional to the number of crises developed in the sub-Saharan countries and in the Middle East”.

Migrants are trying to depart but, in order to avoid a drastic closing of a frightened Europe unable to contain them, they seek refuge in illegality and fall into the hands of those who ride the wave of misery, considering that human trafficking is more profitable than smuggling drugs.

In range of its competence, the European Union developed a policy aimed at relocating or outsourcing the problem of immigration to Third States (of origin or transit) in exchange for financial relief, development aid or generosity in policies related to visas. The EU and its Member States rely on Third States, which are the “immigration bridges” between the European Union and african countries. The priority is to stop the outgoing flows or at least try to manage the repatriation of those immigrants thanks to the “Readmission Agreements“. Whether the fundamental purpose is the containment of illegal immigration, a special consideration goes to refugees and asylum seekers which in frequent occasions are included in the overall number of those rejected. The rule of non-refoulement should represent a further guarantee of safety but is often disregarded by the Readmission Agreements and in particular the Dublin Regulation.

The European Union is an incisive subject at the global level and it must play a key role that the Lisbon Treaty foresees. For this reason, it is essential and logical to assume more and more responsibility in order to give substance to the “Global Approach to Migration and Mobility“, without neglecting any aspect of immigration trends. As defined in the Stockholm Programme, the European responsibility, solidarity and partnership in the field of immigration and asylum, promotes the five basic commitments in the “European Pact on Immigration and Asylum“: organizing the legal immigration taking into account priorities, needs and reception capacities determined by each EU Member State and it encourages integration; fighing illegal immigration, in particular by ensuring the return to the country of origin or to a country of transit for illegal immigrants; enhancing the effectiveness of border controls; build an Europe of asylum; creating a comprehensive partnership with the countries of origin and transit to encourage the synergy between immigration and development.

In addition to the outbreak of the revolutions in North Africa and to the economic crisis that the “Old Continent” is still facing, another factor of complexity is provided by Italian geography and geopolitics, particularly exposed to migratory flows. The Mediterranean Sea, as it has been for centuries, serves as a key mean of communication and it is a bridge among the Third Countries, Italy and Europe.

The issue of Africa needs to be addressed, because it faces Europe as the land of the ransom. The Mediterranean is the line across the European Union and in Europe it should be perceived as it a place of exchange, dialogue and external border. For this reasons it would be appropriate to have a strategic vision on the centrality of the Mediterranean. If not dealt with incisive policies of economic support from the European Union, along with the entire international community, the issue of Africa threatens to explode into unmanageable migratory dynamics.

Therefore it would be desirable for the European Union to reinforce its financial solidarity, in addition to the European Funds, with a view to a concrete operational asset. Irregular flows associate with others negative phenomena, namely the inclusion in the black labor market and crime. Sometimes immigration also involves the risks of delinquency or terrorism; the failure of integration and unfulfilled hopes can favor the predisposition to deviance for reasons of necessity. Therefore, it is clear that the regulatory framework and its application are, today, inadequate to cope with the current immigration emergency.

At the operational level, FRONTEX is the European Union Agency that supports or replaces national governments in order to promote, coordinate and develop European border management. FRONTEX analysts say that the repeated tragedies showed a change of the smugglers’ tactics. Thanks to “Mare Nostrum”, they knew there was a good chance that migrants would have been saved immediately after boarding – in some cases, just 40 miles out the Libyan coast. Consequently, they used small and unsafe boats to reach Europe.

The level of “professionalism” achieved by “smugglers” is something new, encouraged by the high economic potential income. The estimated value of the number of migrants recently intercepted on a boat which contained 450 people, has been estimated to be €1 million. The absence of the rule of law in Libya, after Gaddafi’s fall, seems to have created the perfect conditions for criminal gangs. Because of geographical reasons, like Italy now, Libya has been a highly important hotspot for migrants towards Europe long before 2011. Using a mathematical language with the purpose to create a parallelism between Italy and Libya, the “crisis” is a constant and it builds a proportion where the correlated variables are on the one hand Italy and Europe and on the other hand Libya and Africa. The tentacles of the bands extend deep into the interior of Libya. There are two main overland routes: the east, leading from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan to al-Kufrah in the Libyan eastern desert and Western Route, from Mali, Nigeria and Niger to Tripoli via Qatrun and Sabha. In both cases, however, the journey is controlled by local militias, whose ranks were swollen by former soldiers of the Gaddafi regime.

The cost of the Italian rescue units for SAR activities, is, approximately, €9 million per month and Triton‘s budget, is one third of what Italy was spending on Operation Mare Nostrum. Since 2004 the Italian Navy has carried out the operation “Constant Vigilance” to control immigration flows. After the tragic events of Lampedusa, this operation has been transformed into Mare Nostrum (OMN) with an area of action which is three times the size Sicily. In one year, OMN saved 156.362 migrants and allowed the arrest of 366 smugglers. It has prevented the spread of diseases and increased the maritime safety and security. UNHCR and other organizations have supported the request of Rome to share its costs with other EU Member States, leading to the creation of “Triton”, the FRONTEX-coordinated operation Triton launched by the EU in order to control the borders within 30 nautical miles.

Since the launch of this Joint Operation on last November 1st, some 11.400 migrants have been rescued but, although significantly smaller than the number recorded in August, from November to January 2015, only 25 out of 65 detections were operated by Triton in his area of responsibility. In recent times, other shipwrecks took place and the new Executive Director of FRONTEX, Fabrice Leggeri, said that will come more than 500 thousand migrants. It will take more resources and Member States will have to engage with their vehicles because of the risk of terrorism. He also stated that FRONTEX cannot alone address the problem, and that the cooperation with Third Countries is very important. In fact, the SAR operation is responsible for EU Member States while FRONTEX has different objectives.

Antonio Saccone, Head of Operational Analysis of FRONTEX, believes that there is a real need to have a partner organization in Libya that could face criminal gangs on-shore, like it happens in other countries such as Morocco and Senegal. Looking ahead, a possible route for the future, in operational terms, is providing the need to increase the share and coordination of international organizations and the establishment of civil-military synergic initiatives in order to oppose the trafficking in human beings in the area of the Mediterranean.

However, there are few chances of reaching an agreement with Tripoli: because of civil and military crises in the Middle East, migrant flows in the central Mediterranean are likely to increase. It is possible to assume that it will not be only FRONTEX to offer a solution to the problem, because of its nature of “Home Affair” with a limited and different view compared to the “External Action“, that has among its peacebuilding prerogatives the guarantee of human rights and security in the world, providing crisis response and organize humanitarian aid in case of need.

Looking forward to the internationalization of “Mare Nostrum”, it would be several possibilities of a further international evolution. Considering the different operation undertaken at the global level, in particular FRONTEX-led “paramilitary” operations, the EEAS civilian operations and the NATO’s military operations, due to the activities and crimes attributable to “smugglers” and the failure of Libya as a state, it would be more likely to assume the promotion of a shared program on the model of a joint operation to fight international terrorism or piracy. In fact, according to a geopolitical vision, there are two reasons that should push the euro-Atlantic powers not to abandon this cause. The first refers to energy interests and control of a large part of the hydrocarbons deposits and terminals in the Libyan territory. The second, primarily concerning the EU, leads back to the old problem of migrants from the Sub-Saharan who tackle the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea from Libyan coasts.

In conclusion, the downsizing of immigration is not likely to be achieved just by the military operations at sea, but with synergistic and political-diplomatic activities to be implemented particularly on the territory. Considering our globalized world, the phenomena of immigration and of asylum are structural and permanent. It constitutes a spy of the deep changes taking place due to the presence of a pronounced instability in a limited time and geographical period. Restrictive measures must be placed in the context of broader policies. On a more general level, immigration concerns not only Italy but Europe as a whole, therefore a more comprehensive approach should be implemented. In addition to the respect of fundamental rights and citizenship rights, it should focus on two promotional aspects, both on the territory and in the areas of origin, ensuring an increase of safety and security.


Master in Geopolitics and Global Security (Sapienza – University of Rome)

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