18 Apr 2019

Human smuggling / Migration control shifting to North Africa

Europe’s new approach to migration control means greater responsibility for Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

According to the most recent UN figures, arrivals of irregular migrants in Europe by sea decreased by almost 40% last year, compared to 2017. In Italy, this figure was even greater: the number of arrivals had dropped by 80% compared with the previous year.

But these statistics make it easy to overlook other important facts. The Western Mediterranean route through Morocco to Spain is increasingly considered to be the most active in the region. Hundreds of children, women and men continue to die on their way to Europe. In June 2018, 112 people were killed when their boat sank en route to the Italian island of Lampedusa from the Kerkennah archipelago, close to the Tunisian city of Sfax. Boats capsized off the coast of Libya in June and again in September, killing hundreds of migrants. And on 5 November, 17 migrants died when their vessel capsized in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Managing the migration crisis has become a major political issue for European and North African governments, particularly as regards rescue at sea. In June 2018, the Aquarius, a humanitarian rescue ship carrying 629 passengers, was denied entry to ports in Malta, Italy and France. It was eventually accepted by Spain and disembarked in Valencia. In September, Italian police arrested six Tunisian fishermen for allegedly smuggling migrants to the island of Lampedusa. The fisherman said they had rescued the migrants from a boat in distress. Italian judges released them, and they were allowed to return to Tunis pending trial. On 26 September, a young woman was killed and three people injured when the Royal Moroccan Navy opened fire on a migrant boat.

According to recent figures, the arrivals of irregular migrants in Europe by sea decreased by almost 40% last year

Since the arrival of more than 1.26 million refugees in Europe in 2015, the European Union (EU) began to shift the control of irregular migration to partner countries. The first agreement was signed in March 2016 with Turkey, which undertook to prevent the refugees already in its territory from entering EU countries. This was done in exchange for financial assistance worth an estimated €3 billion per year (of which only a part has been paid). A similar agreement was signed in December 2017 with Niger, promising €1 billion to support the implementation of Niger's 2017-2021 Economic and Social Development Plan. Early in 2017, Libya and Italy also signed a bilateral agreement, which Amnesty International described as a ‘dodgy deal’ that ‘trapped thousands in misery’.

Meanwhile, the debate on illegal migration has led to tougher policies and declarations. These came to a head in June 2018 when Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a member of far-right political party Lega Nord, closed his country’s ports to migrants rescued at sea by NGOs. Later that month, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of a ‘political crisis’ during a mini-summit of 16 EU heads of state in Brussels, Belgium. Prior to the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macron suggested setting up ‘asylum processing centres’ in North Africa – potentially under UN control. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia firmly rejected the idea.

However, political negotiations have continued. Salvini travelled to Tunis in September 2018 and called for ‘controlled, limited and qualified immigration’. Meanwhile, Spanish Secretary of State for Migration, María Consuelo Rumí Ibáñez, called on Moroccan authorities to ‘dismantle the misconception of the European dream, a dream that does not exist’. During their visits, the two European ministers hinted at increased support for economic development and job creation in the regions most affected by departures.

The Spanish Secretary of State for Migration called on Moroccan authorities to ‘dismantle the misconception of the European dream, a dream that does not exist’

Analysts see in these declarations an attempt to shift responsibility to the other side of the Mediterranean. Although negotiations appear to have led nowhere, North African countries have accepted a series of assistance and cooperation measures that have indeed increased their responsibility. Both in the EU and across North Africa, far more exposure has been given to the fight against migrant smuggling – instead of focusing on the issue of irregular migration itself. This has moved the spotlight from the political debate around migration to the organised criminal organisations that operate in North Africa.

The EU has ramped up its cooperation programmes in the region, setting up various technical assistance projects in Morocco, Libya and Tunisia. These are grants of up to tens of millions of euros delivered to an implementing partner that supports the beneficiary country through the provision of expertise or equipment.

According to a senior UN representative in Tunis, these projects focus on improving the ability of EU’s partners to better manage their borders. These programmes come with considerable funding, which renders them very attractive for state institutions in dire need of modernisation and enhanced operational capacities in the fight against organised crime, terrorism or political destabilisation – often more of a focus than migration.

Morocco and Tunisia have repeatedly asked for help in improving employment prospects and livelihoods options in the regions most affected by migrant departures

Both Europe and these North African countries need to carefully assess whether these agreements will be sufficient to produce long-term results. By agreeing to funding and new cooperation projects, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia will have to remain committed if these capacity-building projects to be successful. In Morocco and Tunisia for example, projects funded by the EU and the International Center for Migration Policy Development aim to enhance investigation and interception, and comprise training, process development and the updating of equipment. This requires tremendous buy-in from the operational units: from freeing up their agents to undergo training, to designing and implementing protocols, and learning different techniques using new equipment.

Deterring citizens from leaving will also prove arduous. Morocco and Tunisia have repeatedly asked for help in improving employment prospects and livelihoods options in the regions most affected by the departures. With a complex economic situation in Tunisia and alarming social inequalities in Morocco, European aid will need to be leveraged optimally. In Libya, the security situation worsened during the last quarter of 2018, with open military conflict. 

On 30 January, 50 major humanitarian organisations – including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and the Danish Refugee Council – wrote an open letter urging the EU to end the returns to Libya of migrants intercepted by Libyan coastguards, as they ‘face automatic, arbitrary detention and the real risk of torture and other serious human rights violations’. If Europe is shifting the responsibility to prevent migrants from crossing to the southern shores of the Mediterranean, it must also look into the conditions under which interceptions are carried out.

Jihane Ben Yahia, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory coordinator – North Africa, ISS and Rami Trabelsi, research consultant in geopolitics, security and defence.


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