It is early November and Syed, a young Bangladeshi migrant, is disembarking from the deck of an NGO ship that docked in the port of Messina a few hours earlier. You can barely tell his face from the crowd: over 800 migrants, taken aboard in five consecutive rescues in the Libyan search and rescue zone almost a week before, disembark with him. It’s the latest leg of a harrowing journey, possibly not the last one for many of them. Until then, Syed’s experience with migration has been far from linear. He has been lured to Libya through an intricate network of professional smugglers, leaving from Sirajgani by bus to reach Kolkata in India, then embarking to a flight to New Delhi, changing to another plane headed to Dubai, only to then change again, Cairo-bound. From Egypt, he was smuggled into Libya with the promise of decent work. Instead, he was kidnapped, beaten, held for ransom. Once freed, he attempted to reach Europe three times only to be intercepted and brought back. Finally, at the fourth attempt in eight months, he made it to Italy.
As we enter 2022, irregular flows through the Central Mediterranean are on the rise again. Together with Syed, around 65,000 migrants have made it safely to Italy; another 31,000 were intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard and brought back. In 2019 they had been only 11,000 and 9,000, respectively. We are still far from the 150,000-200,000 that attempted the same journey each year in 2014-16, but with each passing month we are inching closer and closer. The pandemic has played a role in this. For one, it has worsened economic and socio-political prospects in origin and transit countries. In Tunisia, for example, border closures and the collapse of air traffic have struck a serious blow to a country whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism, which accounts for 8% of its GDP and employs close to 10% of its national workforce. At the same time, the pandemic has “regionalized” migration, forcing migrants towards shorter, but even more dangerous routes. Since March 2020, over 35,000 migrants tried to enter Spain through the Canary Islands, departing directly from West African countries by boat, instead of heading to Morocco and taking the much safer (but longer) Western Mediterranean route. Nowadays, arrivals at the Canary Islands are nearing the levels seen only once previously, during the so-called crisis de los cayucos in 2006.
In response to rising irregular arrivals, EU countries continue to forget that irregular migration is not an abstract concept, but is made of men (and women, and children) like Syed. People whose journey is much less predictable, and much less deterrable, than governments wished. This is why in 2021 EU governments have continued to tighten policies at Mediterranean borders, deploying more and more drones to monitor the high seas, or using sound cannons that can direct blasts of up to 160 decibels towards irregular migrants. Expect this to continue into the new year, and more to come. Despite all pointing to the fact that deterrence alone will not make irregular flows across the Mediterranean disappear, 2022 will be a year of very few policy changes. A new German government will have to test the waters before proceeding on controversial dossiers such as migration, while political dynamics in France – with presidential elections this April – have already persuaded Macron to condemn migrant smuggling while tightening national asylum legislation.
Such repressive policies are not just bound to fail in the mid-term, but send a short-term message to difficult partners along Europe’s borders, in the Mediterranean and elsewhere: just a few thousand irregular arrivals are enough to make nerves flare, and end political careers. 2021 has proven that some governments will go to great lengths to leverage this “comparative advantage”, even organizing full-fledged charter planes in order to generate a migratory crisis where none is there in the first place. As the Belarus-Poland border crisis subsides, expect other countries to leverage “available” migrants to punish the EU for unwelcome actions, or to suggest that negotiations are in order. Remember: before Belarus, Morocco was first off the marks this year, reportedly allowing 9,000 migrants towards the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, which some believe was intended to punish Madrid for its decision to admit the leader of the Polisario Front to a Spanish hospital to be treated for Covid-19.
Along with rising flows, and high political pressures, the Mediterranean is also becoming increasingly more deadly. Much has been written about the 27 migrants that have died in the English Channel this November. But the number pales if compared to the at least 1,655 migrants that lost their lives attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in 2021. And yet, even rising deaths do not act as a deterrent for even more migrants willing to reach Europe. In the face of all this, legal alternatives to reach Europe have been shrinking. In 2020, the pandemic brought the number of new residence permits to stay in the EU down by 24%, equivalent to a whopping 800,000 migrants. It is only inevitable that these persons will be looking for other ways to enter EU countries, and some of them will resort to irregular means to do so. And while the European Commission is painfully aware of the problem, and has proposed the idea of Talent Partnerships between countries of origin and destination in June 2021, the proposal has been met with a tepid reception by most European capitals.
With 2022 fast approaching, no EU government appears to be properly planning for the present and future of irregular migration across the Mediterranean, even as flows have been trending upwards for over a year. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum is languishing in a dusty drawer. For lack of viable alternatives, stronger border enforcement and a wider externalization of border management are the two practices to which governments continue to fall back to. The trend is set to continue, and third countries are watching. Amid small glimmers of hope, unfortunately, in borders across the Mediterranean migration remains a tool for political gain, rather than a means for development.
‘Borders To Watch in 2022: The Mediterranean’ — Commentary by Matteo Villa —
Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.