Utopian, but not impossible

If the EU finds the political will to engage seriously and effectively with Libya, solutions may eventually be found

Migrant rescue NGOs have become a convenient punching bag for politicians but they also have to cooperate with regional governments
Migrant rescue NGOs have become a convenient punching bag for politicians but they also have to cooperate with regional governments

Writing in this newspaper, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat noted that: “the MV Aquarius and MV Lifeline standoffs have seen Italy and Malta pitted against each other, when in fact we should be allies working for the same cause. This further highlights the failure of Europe to act.”

Undeniably, this issue has cast a spotlight on the disintegration of European solidarity, when faced with what should be a common problem. But as the Lifeline standoff reaches an uneasy compromise, and similar situations continue to loom on the horizon, it is equally clear that European solidarity is under attack from other quarters, too.

It cannot pass unnoticed that the combined responses of Italy and Malta, in both the Aquarius and Lifeline cases, was to question – if not directly threaten – the NGOs involved in the rescue of almost 500 people at sea.

Nor is this an isolated case. Migrant rescue NGOs have become a convenient punching bag for European governments feeling the brunt of an electoral backlash from the political far-right.

Malta is no exception in this, and it is now upping its own rhetoric against these NGOs operating in the Mediterranean: issuing a statement suggesting that the ship’s captain and crew would be investigated; and refusing the MV Aquarius, a migrant rescue vessel operated by SOS Mediterranee, entry into Malta for a crew change.

The situation is admittedly complex, and NGOs do have to be mindful of their obligations according to international maritime law. But before rushing to judge in this, or any analogous case: it may be worth remembering that their involvement is in itself a direct response to Europe’s ‘failure to act’.

It has to be said that these NGOs have, over the past few years, filled in a gap in the Mediterranean by rescuing migrants at sea; and that the gap was not of their own making. Their work has helped prevent a lot of the tragic instances of the not so distant past where Europe mourned as it helplessly witnessed boatloads of migrants sinking, killing hundreds of women, children and men.

The intentions of NGOs are undoubtedly noble. On an immediate level, they are assisting people in distress on the high seas – an archaic, ancestral obligation recognised by all peoples, at all times – and in the longer term, they are helping people escaping destitution to reach a safe haven. One can agree or disagree with their methods, but it would be churlish not to recognise that they act in good faith.

However, in a prevailing climate of concern over migration, NGOs also have to understand the importance of operating within a cooperative framework with European governments and coast guards. Those operating outside international law, or disobeying orders outright, will not help the cause they serve. They will only help cement the opposition to migrants in Europe, which in turn renders European governments hostage to a far-right philosophy that borders on xenophobia and racism.

Once again, a European solution that ropes in the sterling work of NGOs is required. And the solution must also involve Libya.

It is true that Libya remains fractured and unstable after the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. It is true that the UN-recognised Libyan government does not have complete control on all Libyan territory.

But Europe must step in with a Marshall Plan for Libya. First and foremost, the plan must foresee investment in Libya that helps foster security, jobs, prosperity and social improvement for ordinary Libyans.

Europe and Malta have a role to play to disrupt the fuel smuggling networks in Libya that are providing the financial lifeline for competing militia groups and depriving the state of the necessary income.

The plan should also target human smuggling networks. This can be done through the creation of migrant reception centres operated by Libya under the auspices of the UN and the EU. These centres would process migrants’ claims for asylum: those deserving protection would be distributed among member states according to established quotas; those who do not deserve protection would be sent back through an effective returns policy and agreements with third countries.

Libya, of course, will take a lot longer to stabilise. But setbacks should not prevent the EU from giving up on a neighbour. Clearly, having a failed state on its southern doorstep is not an option for Europe.

The initial steps may be small, and should focus on areas of mutual concern: on the one hand, migrant reception centres overseen by the EU in Libya; on the other, investment in Libya’s security forces to help foster safety and peace of mind in Libya.

This should be accompanied by targeted programmes of social and economic development in Libya, to improve the lives of ordinary people in the country... with a view towards extending the approach south of the Sahara.

All this may sound Utopian; in many aspects, perhaps it is. But it is not impossible. If the EU finds the political will to engage seriously and effectively with Libya, solutions may eventually be found. As former PM Dom Mintoff once cautioned, “There can be no peace in Europe unless there is peace in the Mediterranean”. That vision still holds true today.