We need to wage war on human smugglers, not migrants | Mark Micallef

Irregular migration may seem eternally ‘beyond our ability to control’. But MARK MICALLEF – former journalist, now a researcher with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime – argues that positive results can, in fact, be achieved: if only we focused our energies on the ‘real’ targets

In a sense, the word ‘immigration’ always brings with it a certain sense of ‘deja-vu’. For years, we have been hearing the same old political platitudes... yet all the while, the flow of migration itself (not to mention all the associated fatalities, such as last month’s umpteenth tragedy off the Italian coast) always seems to just continue, unabated. As someone who has paid close attention to what is really happening on the ground, however: how much truth is there to that perception, in reality?

First of all: I know exactly where you’re coming from; I know that, when you look at migration on a broader level... it does feel as though nothing ever really ‘changes’, at the end of the day.

Especially when you look at the events of recent weeks, in Italy and elsewhere: and see how ‘reminiscent’ they are, of similar tragedies that had occurred around 10 years ago, or more. Under those circumstances, it’s hard not to experience that feeling of ‘deja-vu’: as though we are constantly going through the same old cycle of events, over and over again.

In reality, though: a lot has actually changed, since then; and lots of things keep changing, all the time. The problem, however, is that governments are also among the things that ‘keep changing’, on a regular basis; and because there is no real continuity, between one administration and the next... we never really learn from our past mistakes.

And this, at the end of the day, is why that ‘cycle’ seems to constantly keep repeating itself: and why – unsurprisingly - it always produces what feel like the same results...

I think I can see what you’re driving at... but can you be more specific? What sort of ‘changes’ are you actually referring to, in practical terms?

Let’s start by just taking a look at the central Mediterranean: by which I mean Malta, Tunisia, Italy, Libya... and maybe, at most, a small part of Egypt.

Now: in 2017, there was a catastrophic collapse of Libya’s entire human smuggling industry. And this was reflected in the numbers: if you look at data for 2016, you will see that there were around 180,000 departures from Libya – and there’s a reason, by the way, why I specifically refer to ‘departures from Libya’; and not just ‘arrivals in Europe’ (which is how official statistics are usually compiled.)

Because to me, it is misleading to only refer to the number of migrants who actually ‘make it to Europe’, after the crossing from Africa.... as opposed to the total number of people who actually attempt that crossing, to begin with: many of whom may never ‘make it’, in the end... either because they ‘turn back’; or ‘get intercepted’; or else end up dying, in yet another tragedy at sea.

But that was just an aside. My point is that – one year later, in 2017 – the number of departures from Libya fell drastically: from 180,000, to only 120,000.

And while that might not seem like such a massive contraction, when viewed as a yearly figure.... you will notice that a very, VERY sharp decline occurred specifically in July 2017: which coincides with a change in policy, by Libya’s former Government of National Accord (GNA), to try and ‘co-opt’ as many local militias as possible, that were known to be involved with human smuggling operations at the time.

Now: it’s important to bear in mind that the period I’m talking about – between 2016 and 2017– was a highly sensitive moment, politically, for Libya in general. There was a lot of discussion, at the time, about that country’s political future. It seemed that the GNA had ‘run its course’ - that it had ‘expired’, so to speak - and what this implied, in all likelihood, was another ‘reboot’ of the entire political system: another new government, with another mandate to hold fresh elections: and so on, and so forth.

There was, in brief, a sensation that things were about to change, dramatically... and on top of that, there was also unprecedented pressure on Libya – by the international community; and especially, by the European press – to clamp down on human smuggling, once and for all.

To cut a long story short, the upshot was that nearly all those militias – if not all of them - were convinced to go from being ‘outlaws’, to ‘sheriffs’.... from one day, to the next.

And if I use terminology from the ‘Wild West’: it’s because it’s very much the same sort of context, at the end of the day. Then as now, you have criminal gangs, or militias, that sometimes get ‘roped into’ the law enforcement sector: and end up ‘policing’ the same sort of criminal activities, that they themselves had earlier been in the business of ‘protecting’...

I understand that your line of work – as a researcher into North Africa’s human smuggling networks – has also placed you in direct contact with at least some of these people. If so: what are they actually like, anyway?

At the time we’re talking about, I was lucky enough to be commissioned to go to Libya and conduct interviews with various militia leaders, almost back-to-back, over the course of several months.

So if you’re asking for a typical profile, based on my own experience... what I can tell you, roughly, is that we’re looking at a ‘late 20s, early 30s’ type of guy... who – either during, or immediately after the 2011 revolution – somehow managed to corner some parcel of Libyan territory; eventually, rising to  becoming ‘head honcho’, when it comes to controlling the criminal activities of that particular area.

It doesn’t mean, however, that they are all directly involved in the actual day-to-day administration, of all those criminal activities. In fact, very few of them actually are. In this sense, it is more akin to the model we associate with the traditional Sicilian mafia... whereby ‘human smuggling’ (in this instance) is but one of several illicit activities, that happen to provide a steady source of revenue for whoever controls the local market.

Nor are they necessarily motivated by the same political – or even military, for that matter - aspirations. Some of them are content to just be the next ‘Gaddafi’, of their own particular town or village... others, on the other hand, have genuine ambitions to (quite literally) ‘take over the entire country’.

In fact, this is – I would say – the main difference, between these local militia leaders, and criminal organisations such as the Mafia. In most cases, these people will also be heavily invested, in maintaining their own ‘public profile’. Many of them feel (often, with good reason) that they actually have a political future of their own, in that country’s volatile, unfolding situation.

And while they might look upon human smuggling as just ‘another revenue stream’, to finance their own rise to power... their personal ambitions are not necessarily limited to just being ‘criminal entrepreneurs’, for its own sake. Many of them also want to maintain a foothold – and ideally, a ‘legitimate’ one - in Libya’s ever-changing political landscape.

So when all those discussions were taking place [in 2017], about the possibility of yet another political ‘reboot’ in Libya... all of them were very concerned, about how they themselves would actually ‘fit’ into the changing picture. Especially considering that – given the international climate, and the intensity of the media spotlight on Libya, at the time – being associated with human smuggling, had by then become as politically ‘toxic’ as, say, being associated with terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Government of National Alliance also had its own (rather obvious) reasons to be worried about the same situation: so in a sense, you could say that there was this ‘perfect storm’, whereby various different interests happened to suddenly – and fortuitously - ‘align’.

As a result, the GNA offered those militias the opportunity to legitimise themselves, in the eyes of the world, by aiding in the ‘national effort to clamp down on human smuggling’... and granted: once again, it proved to be just another ‘revenue stream’, for themselves – in the sense that many of them ended up on government salaries: and were therefore able to pay their own foot-soldiers, without having to actually make all that money by ‘taxing’ illicit markets, to begin with...

All the same, however: what mattered more than the money, to them, was clearly the ‘legitimacy’ of actually working hand-in-hand with the UN-approved Libyan government (even because, at the end of the day, they had been making much more money when ‘participating’ in the human smuggling market, than when ‘policing’ it.)

Nonetheless, the upshot was that these people ended up being co-opted by the state, as it were: and suddenly, they found themselves playing the part of ‘sheriffs’, instead of ‘outlaws’. And the result – as clearly shown by the data – was that the entire Libyan network of human smuggling simply collapsed: almost literally, from one day to the next.

Now: I’m not suggesting that any of these changes, in themselves, have in any way ‘solved’ the issue of human smuggling in Libya: or anywhere else in the central Mediterranean, for that matter...

In fact, you pre-empted a question I was about to ask anyway. So far, you have focused mainly on Libya’s responsibility to ‘clamp down on human smuggling’ – suggesting (if I understood correctly) that it IS in fact possible, for individual countries to effectively ‘bring the numbers down’. But if Libya could achieve that, back in 2017... why has the same success so far consistently eluded the European Union: with all its ‘Frontex’ operations; and endless discussions about a ‘New Migration Pact’, etc.?

First of all: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that ALL the efforts of the international community – including, but not limited to, the European Union – have been completely ‘unsuccessful’, in this regard.

In fact, another critically important reason for the same political processes I have just described, was precisely that there were also a number of high-level prosecutions - and other punitive actions - that were simultaneously being pursued at international level.

One of these was the decision [in 2018] to impose international sanctions on human smugglers operating out of Libya... which did not, admittedly, achieve all the ‘success’ it actually hoped for, on the ground: in the sense that there was no further escalation, beyond the direct impact of those sanctions on the individuals who were actually targeted...

Nonetheless, it certainly had a significant ‘chilling effect’, on Libya’s human smuggling network as a whole. To give you one example: at the time, East African smugglers were known to be responsible for a large part of the number of migrants being smuggled into Libya... but many of them started winding down their operations, soon after those sanctions were imposed: possibly, out of fear that ‘they themselves might be next’; or simply because they concluded that the operation was becoming ‘too risky’, to even be worth their while.

Either way: those sanctions proved to be enough of a threat, to convince a not-significant part of that East African human smuggling network to just ‘pack up its bags’ altogether.

And there have been other such instances: including a number of international criminal prosecutions, led by individual countries – such as Italy and the Netherlands – which also resulted in a noticeable drop in the level of human smuggling activity, at the time.

The problem, however, is that those efforts were never properly sustained; and what’s more, they are not upheld consistently, across the board... partly because there is no real ‘common policy-direction’, that clearly unites all the various entities involved.

On the contrary,  what we have today is more like an occasional ‘spurt of activity’ – usually, consisting in individual efforts by different countries, or other relevant jurisdictions (including the ICC) – which tend to be very ‘successful’, for as long as they actually last... but then, they never seem to last very long.

And this is a great pity, because – as the above examples (and others) keep  proving, time and time again – those are the strategies which actually DO work, in practice. We know, from our own past experience, that ‘prosecuting criminals’ has a far greater track-record of success... than simply trying to build more ‘walls’, and more ‘barriers’, to just keep migrants out of Europe, at all costs.

Now: I will not go as far as to say that the latter approach, by definition, will simply ‘never work, at all’.  Nor will I argue that this kind of policy option should be ‘kept off the table’, at all times (even though, quite frankly, ‘border control’ remains around the only thing that ever really gets discussed, around the European discussion table, AT ALL...).

What I will say, however, is that: ‘putting all your eggs into that one basket’, in this particular scenario, is CERTAINLY not going to work. What is really needed, is not just ‘border control’, on its own – though that is, undeniably, an important component - but rather, a multi-pronged formula that also includes, among other things, ‘safe and legal passage’ for the migrants themselves.

Ideally, this should operate on two levels: catering for both asylum seekers, who have a right to apply for international protection... and also, for short-term economic migrants (of the kind that European economies stand to benefit from enormously, anyway; thus creating a potential ‘win-win’ scenario, for all concerned.)

Above all, however, this multi-pronged approach also has to include an emphasis on ‘criminal prosecution’. In other words, we have to REALLY go after the criminals who actually run those human smuggling operations. Or to quote the slogan that was so popular in Europe, a few years back... we have to REALLY wage a ‘war against human smugglers’: instead of just a ‘war against migrants’ (which is what we really seem to be waging, most of the time.)