European African leaders have recently come together to discuss the shocking reports of slavery and slave trade in migrants trapped in Libya during their 5th African Union – European Union Summit, an event meant to shape the future cooperation between the continents. In contrast to the ambitious goals of setting the vision for a broader series of meetings and discussions to tackle migration, the summit also demonstrated the EU’s failure to understand the realities of the movement of people – and it is exactly this failure that risks exacerbating the problems faced by refugees and migrants.
The summit took on extra importance to the issue of slavery after CNN had released reports of slave markets for migrants held in Libya. The report shocked the international community and put pressure on Libyan ambassadors to explain and address the situation of hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants who were repatriated from the country. The French President Emmanuel Macron took the issue a few steps further during the summit when he called for an urgent action to rescue and repatriate migrants trapped in Libyan camps including the establishment of pathways to process asylum applications more effectively.
EU President Donald Tusk, on his part, supported Mr. Macron’s initiative and urged the imposition of UN sanctions on “human smugglers and traffickers” and the protection and facilitation of returning migrants to their homes. These announcements are extensions of Macron’s plans from this summer to establish “hotspots” that would speed up applications. Emmanuel Macron is, however, now calling for a “concrete military and police initiative” in Libya, accompanied by UN sanctions and other tools to interdict the “passeurs” [smugglers] who help migrants move from the Sahel and West Africa through Libya.
Some of the leaders’ ideas are already taking shape in practice. EU institutions are already working with Libyan authorities, military and naval units. The EU is providing financial assistance and other material support of voluntary repatriation of migrants back to their home countries – 13,000 migrants have chosen the option so far. The EU Trust Fund for Africa, which has since November 2015 raised almost €3.2 billion for the causes related to irregular migration, as such plays a major role in financing ongoing efforts to stem migrant flows.
However, there are still many unknowns and it remains unclear how some of the plans are meant to work. For example, President Macron did not specify whether the military initiative would consist of European, Libyan or other African forces and whether the patchwork of competing militias would be involved. All options are risky: a deployment of EU forces would risk combat with well-armed militias, while working with Libyan militias or more formalized armed groups might exacerbate fighting in the country and further help traffickers themselves.
While the EU has announced to create an €8 billion fund for the region on top of the French-led Alliance pour le Sahel that promises development aid and investment, the programs funded by these schemes could take years to implement and risk overwhelming the local absorption capacity. It is therefore only through the establishment of legal migration channels within the region and to the EU that will tackle illegal migration without causing damage to the social and economic patterns in the Sahel and West Africa.
‘Misunderstanding Migration in North and West Africa’ – Commentary by Andrew Lebovich – European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).