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What Libya can teach Europe about refugees

Interview: Dana RegevNovember 11, 2015

The ECFR has released a report suggesting Europe could learn a few things from Libya about migration management. Its author, Mattia Toaldo, tells DW what Europe is doing wrong.

Libyen Flüchtlinge
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: How relevant is Libya in managing the European refugee crisis, as the main focus has shifted to refugees coming through the Balkans?

A big chunk of the migrants who arrive in Europe still come through Libya and the Libyan route has always been there. The route through Turkey and the Balkans is a bit more recent; at least, in terms of the high number of migrants using it now.

Precisely since Libya has been a known route to Europe for long time, we could learn a few things from it about how to manage and control smuggling routes and networks. This information could also be applied on other routes.

DW: What are the problems in the current way Europe is handling the crisis? What can be done differently?

Well, one lesson learned that applies also to the Turkey-Greece-Balkan route is that if you don't provide refugees with a legal means of transportation to Europe and only promise to consider their applications once they get there, and say you're not interested in how they get there, then, the result is that you're making smugglers very rich. These smugglers will later reinvest the money in order to get other types of migrants to Europe, not only refugees.

The way to get to Europe cannot be illegal and the policy of "closed borders" in some states only helps to feed people smuggling. If Europe continues to focus on keeping migrants out, we will get more entrenched smuggling networks and more migrants living in Europe underground.

DW: So we understand what we shouldn't do, but what should we be doing then?

The first thing we should do is let asylum seekers travel to Europe in an orderly manner, such as taking a flight, and then enable them to file their applications once they land in Europe.

Porträt - Mattia Toaldo
Mattia ToaldoImage: privat

This would eliminate smuggling, or at least make it a lot less profitable. It would also reduce the overall numbers of asylum seekers. For example, what's happening in West Africa is that smugglers are introducing "discounted prices," so that people who would not necessarily migrate are now deciding to do so because it's cheap and possible.

The impression we give in Europe that the door is shutting has a bad effect, because people who would have not considered to migrate immediately are doing it now. They think that once the door is shut it will no longer be possible to migrate.

DW: So allowing flights to Europe will actually reduce the number of migrants?

It will make migration that is now illegal, unidentified and untraceable, legal and easier to manage. For a start we would know the numbers and could process them on European soil. Asylum seekers would be identified by their passports so we wouldn't waste so much time on identification.

Another thing is that if you only accept refugees but not other types of migrants, all the migrants will end up trying to pretend to be refugees, a trend which is already happening. The alternative is to push people out, which is also happening in a few countries, but is again not efficient or clever.

DW: You said Europe needs to rethink the idea of reception centers and hotspots. Explain.

Of course, we need reception centers, but in the current political climate in Europe they could easily turn into "pushback" centers. Still, it's better if they are in Europe so that we can monitor them, make sure that human rights are respected and that everyone is properly identified.

I'm a bit more skeptical about identification centers in third-world countries, because they don't have a record of respecting human rights or being independent from smuggling networks, to put it gently.

Is there room for comparison between Libya and Europe? Libya is usually a transit state rather than a final destination, unlike Germany, for example. Are Libya's lessons even relevant for Europe?

Libya actually used to be a destination country, which had two million migrants until two years ago. Some of those who have then moved to Europe were people who had migrated to Libya, so yes.

We should also make sure that people can migrate to neighboring countries and not just to Europe: A lot of people from west Africa actually migrate within the region, but for the smugglers it's more profitable to push them towards Europe, so they are in fact pressuring them to do so.

This is yet another example of why the more legal the movements are, the easier it is to contain and to manage them.

Rettungsaktion von Ärzte ohne Grenzen Mittelmeer
"The impression we give in Europe that the door is shutting has a bad effect"Image: DW/K. Zurutuza

You say that Europe should cooperate more with African countries, by increasing European presence, or by helping governments. But how can you be sure these countries want your help?

As for Libya, there is definitely an interest in the existing government agencies and in cooperation with the west in managing the crisis, but because of the country's political situation Europe refuses to deal with any authority that is based in Tripoli and that makes migration management a lot harder.

In fact, once there are more legal ways of travel established, Europe will no longer need a lot of cooperation with countries from which asylum seekers are coming. In some cases, countries might even be interested in cooperating with Europe because this could help them build a better law enforcement infrastructure.

Also, it's not only about working with governments, but with local communities. For example, about 30 percent of the remittances from migrants are eaten up by money transfer companies. Even before this big influx, the amount of money paid by migrants in order to get to Europe was about 30 billion euros a year.

So if you do the math, several billion euros a year go into the pockets of those transfering the money. If we could divert part of this money to the communities from which these migrants come, it would mean more development and more funds than we could ever provide for development aid. It would probably also be a lot more effective.

You say Europe should "engage with local communities," "revise its policy" and "challenge regional allies" - but these are all words which stand for nothing in the real world. What do you practically mean when you say, for instance, that Europe should "engage with state institutions?"

In the case of local authorities, engaging means providing them with a list of things we could help them do. What we have done wrong after 2011, after the intervention, was to ask these authorities what they need. But sometimes they are so weak that they cannot do proper assessments, so it takes them a very long time just to process their needs and in the meantime there was another civil war.

Symbolbild Flüchtlingsboot Küste Libyen
"If you do the math, several billion Euros a year go to the pockets of money transferors"Image: Reuters/D. Zammit Lupi

By engaging I mean that we tell them what we can give in terms of practical assistance. They don't necessarily need money, sometimes refugees pass through or come from relatively wealthy states, but they need everything in terms of technical support. They sometimes don't know how to make a budget, how to arrange public services or how to collect taxes.

What we have done so far in these cases is to provide authorities with training or with cooperation where they then work together with European parallels - learning by doing. These are things that Europe can offer, and some countries are already doing it, such as the Netherlands with Libya. We don't need to reinvent the wheel.

Mattia Toaldo is a policy fellow for ECFR's Middle East & North Africa program where he focuses on Libya, Israel/Palestine and migration issues.