No ‘silver bullet’ solution to human smuggling | Mark Micallef

Former journalist Mark Micallef has spent the last three years researching human smuggling networks in North Africa.  He calls for an integrated approach...

Mark Micallef at a detention centre for refugees in Tripoli. Photo: Robert Young Pelton
Mark Micallef at a detention centre for refugees in Tripoli. Photo: Robert Young Pelton

Migration seems to have fallen off the local radar of public concern in recent years... though it clearly remains a major cause for concern in the rest of Europe and elsewhere. Has Malta been cocooned from the realities that surround it? Or is it really the case – as public perceptions seem to indicate – that the ‘migration phenomenon’ is now an issue of the past?

The short answer is no, and I’ll explain why later. But the irony here is that the debate in Malta mellowed at the same time as it ramped up everywhere else: not just Europe, but the rest of the world, really. Most of northern Europe woke up to the reality of the migration crisis when the Aegean crisis happened; which hit a peak in 2015/16.

Ironically, the decline in Malta happened around the same time. I think it can be put down to Italy’s decision to launch Mare Nostrum. There have been a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding this sudden drying up of boats arriving in Malta. I think there’s nothing mysterious about it, really. After the accidents in Lampedusa in October 2013, Italy decided – on the basis of search and rescue considerations – to move its Search and Rescue (SAR) zone to just outside Libya’s territorial waters.

You’ll remember, some years ago, when we used to squabble with Italy over whether a boat was in our SAR area or not. Before, the squabbles happened because boats would first enter Malta’s SAR area, then sail through towards Italy. The AFM has never admitted this, but very often they would monitor them doing so, without intervening. The Italians obviously knew this was happening... so when those boats would enter Italy’s SAR zone, in a few cases they would argue that they were Malta’s responsibility, not theirs...

There were also disagreements on the interpretation of ‘safe port of call’...

Yes, there was a whole legal battle going on.   Of course, Italy had a different legal perspective from ours. [...] But when Italy decided to launch Mare Nostrum, expand its SAR zone to just outside Libyan territorial waters, and – importantly – take charge of it, which it still does to this day...  this whole argument disappeared, because those boats no longer even come near Malta’s SAR zone. So to say that it is ‘strange’ that Malta doesn’t take in any boats, today, is the same as querying why Swedish vessels participating in EU Mediterranean operations do not take the people they rescue to Sweden. Same with France, the UK, etc. 

Either way, they are no longer coming here: yet earlier you said you disagreed that the issue is now over...

It is only the spectacular element of irregular immigration – i.e., boats coming in packed with large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans, mostly destitute, in bad shape, etc., etc. – that has disappeared. But if you look at the situation in the past few years, we’ve still had a number of Libyan refugees – de facto refugees, in that they cannot continue to live in Libya because of persecution; Syrian refugees, some of whom travel irregularly through Europe and end up in Malta; and even some African asylum seekers and migrants who were in Italy, but decided to come to Malta looking for work. That dynamic didn’t disappear. What disappeared was the spectacular element, and the discussion about it. 

A lot of this discussion tended to be quite volatile at the time. It is fair to say that ‘immigration’, in Malta and elsewhere, is viewed through the prism of a lot of anxiety. How do you account for the polemics that invariably cloud debate on this issue?

I think there are two dynamics to that: I’ve given this a lot of reflection, because I feel I was very much a protagonist as a former journalist who used to write a lot about migration. There was a national anxiety about ‘the unknown’ – we saw this throughout the rest of Europe, too – and with the numbers. By ‘unknown’, I mean... yes, at the time there was the argument that Malta had never really more than 4,000 migrants in a single year. By today’s standards, that sounds very meagre. But Malta always used the proportional argument in that respect.

But – and I think this is also what fuels European anxiety – there was also the unknown factor concerning numbers. Last year, it was 180,000 crossing the central Med... we don’t know about this year.  It could be 200,000, or a bit more, or a bit less. We don’t know. This is what feeds the narrative of ‘relentlessness’... the tropes of migrants coming in ‘waves’, an ‘invasion’, etc, etc. However, I also think the media that were sympathetic to the cause of the migrants – and I was very much part of it, so I speak in the first person when I say this – helped to fuel that same anxiety, by focusing such an intense spotlight on that spectacular element: the rescue, the arrivals, etc. What happened later proves that this anxiety has a lot to do with the spectacular way those stories were being presented and debated. 

Meanwhile, the same anxiety may have lessened here, but it has intensified in the rest of Europe. The EU has so far given many assurances that it will prioritise the issue... but so far its efforts have been criticised (from the humanitarian perspective) for being either too militaristic, or (from other perspectives) not being effective enough. Sticking only to the human smuggling angle... what should the EU be doing about it, anyway? 

If you only look at North Africa and the Sahel [North-central Africa from Senegal to Sudan], Europe has had a problem co-ordinating its efforts, and agreeing on a co-ordinated set of solutions. The biggest problem is precisely that there isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ solution that would work even in one single country... let alone in the vast area we’re talking about.

Each specific country would need a multitude of measures implemented in a strategic way. Here comes the biggest problem, I think: the EU still struggles to be strategic in its way of doing things. For instance, I don’t think it is advisable to remove the security component from the mix that would be needed to have a properly managed migration system... but at the same time, whenever there is a crisis, the EU responds by resorting to that policy tool in a disproportionate way. That is not conducive to a long-term solution.

Nonetheless – and this may be a criticism of ‘the other side’... it is something I woke up to a lot in the past three years – I also believe that slowing down the flow of migration through Libya, which is the main funnel for the Sahel region, is a good objective. The way human smuggling has developed in Libya, particularly after the revolution, is feeding directly into the resource predation that is at the core of why Libya is as destabilised as it is today. In the past few years, militias have been tapping into the money that is being made from human smuggling... and this gives them an incentive to root for the status quo.

Rather than agree to peace, and to an eventual national unity government and unified army... this is achieving the complete opposite. It is undermining the stability of Libya, and affecting the Libyan population itself. Many of these militias are running protection rackets, which affect the areas that most impact the local population. It affects the security situation, the rate of kidnaps, the collapse of the economy, and so on. So in my opinion it is a valid objective to try and slow migration down... it cannot be stopped; if anything we have to prepare ourselves, because in the next decade or so, the likelihood is that irregular migration is going to increase, not decrease.  

Is it wise to focus only on dismantling human smuggling networks, though? One argument that is often raised concerns creating alternative, legal routes for migration to take place...

By and large, we need a management system which creates a legal ‘queue’, essentially. A queue where both refugees and, I would say, economic migrants have a legal channel to get to Europe. That, however, needs to be reinforced by tackling smuggling networks. Because if you just open a legal channel, and leave the backdoor completely open, you will end up with a two-lane system: whereby people who are eligible for refugee status and other protection will join the queue... all the rest, however, will still take the smuggling network route. 

This can only realistically be done through military means, however. One example was an EU operation which aimed (among other things) to destroy the smugglers’ boats...

Not necessarily only through military means... there is also ‘smart targeting’ that can be done. One of the things that has helped human smuggling in Libya since the revolution, in a very significant way, is ‘hawala’: an informal money transaction system, adopted practically all over Africa. Because the Libyan economy is starved of foreign currency, and the banks aren’t functioning properly, ‘hawala’ has been used to sustain the legitimate economy. At the same time, a system which had been very heavily policed under the previous regime, has been given a free hand to be used for criminal purposes. Not just human smuggling, but all sorts of criminal activities. The centres for ‘hawala’ are all over the place. Khartoum in Sudan is a very important centre, as is Istanbul. So smart targeting – as in ‘following the money’, for example – is one option. 

One other thing which is very effective, but the international community doesn’t seem to be organised to be strategic about it, is the targeting of individuals: particularly, militias, and militia leaders. The Libya panel of experts for the UN Security Council recently published three reports in a row where they named individuals involved in fuel smuggling and human smuggling – which are inter-related – and this has an effect on these people. They will either go further underground, and maintain a low profile...  or try to rehabilitate their image with the Libyan government, and even internationally. Why? Because these people aren’t your classic ‘Escobar’ or ‘El Chapo’: they have an investment in that particular territory, in that particular system... their end goal is political rather than criminal, or money-making in its essential form. So this has an effect on them. What I would like to see is the Security Council taking up those names which are already on the table; uncovering more of those names through investigation; and targeting those people at least with sanctions: travel sanctions; economic sanctions...    

But would that really end human smuggling, though? Wouldn’t the networks just be taken over by ‘real’ organised criminal gangs instead?

That risk is always present. Which is why a second level of investment needs to be made. One of the biggest problems– which is improving, but only very slightly – is that much of the international community has very poor visibility on Libya. It only has a very basic understanding of the country. So even on the level of intervention, the first really foundational thing that needs to be done is investment in a granular understanding of how things work at a local level. This idea that Libya is ‘total anarchy’, for example, is completely mistaken. Libya is locally governed – micro-governed, if anything – but it is not ungoverned. Different areas are governed by different political eco-systems. Once you understand those systems, you start to see opportunities where you can intervene. 

Since the revolution, I have travelled widely in Libya. I had been there before, too; but I hadn’t seen a fraction of the country; and in those days, one was chaperoned around the place. Since the revolution, however I have seen much more of Libya... and I’ve been able to do that because I invested in understanding local political eco-systems, that would then offer protection, passage and ease of navigation. That same principle needs to be applied in understanding how one can engage. One last thing, which I think is very important: in the tool-kit of what we need to be implementing, I think there should also be a developmental approach...

That raises another criticism of EU policy: it tends to be too short-term, dealing only with individual crises as they arise. Shouldn’t we also be talking about improving the economic conditions in the countries of origin? Which would presumably include Libya, too?

I think we need both short- and long-term approaches. There is a very long-term developmental approach to be taken with regard to investing in communities where people are departing from, in order to help with opportunity-building. This is VERY long-term: often, rather than purely economic investment, we are talking about building up the entire infrastructure. But there is also a medium-to-short-term developmental outlook which needs to be considered.

To give one example: until August 2015, human smuggling in Niger wasn’t even illegal. And Niger is a huge regional funnel feeding into Libya, and to a lesser extent Algeria. Places like Agadez, which sits around 250km from the Libyan border, have flourished over the past 15/20 years. And that is in part due to what we, from our perspective, call ‘human smuggling’.

But it wasn’t a crime. Many of the migrants flowing through Agadez come from the ECOWAS region: an area of freedom of movement, free trade, etc. They were doing absolutely nothing wrong by being in northern Niger. And Nigerien law said nothing about ‘helping people to cross borders’ being illegal. But since October the government has been cracking down on places like Agadez: which has gone from ‘full business’ mode to an almost complete depression. We don’t understand exactly what’s happening there: but preliminary research suggests there has probably been a scattering effect. People are still crossing, but through different routes. 

The problem is that we are talking about a very unstable region anyway, that has been further destabilised because of the Libyan revolution. Mali, right next door, has suffered a war because of what happened in Libya; Boko Haram, further south, is also destabilising the region from a security perspective. And there’s constant trouble in northern Chad, albeit at low level. The worry of suddenly taking out of the equation a steady source of income for thousands of young Nigeriens – who do not have any economic opportunities, other than human smuggling – is that we might be trading one problem for a bigger one. Radicalisation, which is also a major concern for all countries. That’s where you need a framework of development investment which is medium- to short-term. Northern Niger is one of the poorest regions in the world: its problems cannot be solved from one day to the next. But we’re going to have to compensate somewhere for the depletion of what was, until very recently, a legitimate economy.