Malta’s ‘Libya deal’ to push EU border south

Government pushing for EU deal to process asylum seekers in Algeria or Egypt

Since taking over the EU presidency, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has repeatedly called for a new migration deal with Libya, replicating the arrangement between Turkey and the EU.

The Maltese government is now mooting the idea of striking a deal with other North African countries such as Algeria and Egypt, government sources have told MaltaToday.

Addressing the European Parliament last week, Muscat said that after paying Libya to stem the flow of migrants leaving its shores by boat, the EU can look into organising “humanitarian safe passages and corridors, that would get recognised asylum seekers to Europe safely.”

Government sources said that any deal with Libya “must include strong investment and an aid package, while technical assistance should also be provided” – a suggestion that raises the prospect of money for Libya and the possibility of European coastguard patrols placed just outside Libyan waters to take part in the interception of migrant boats.

The idea of striking a deal with Algeria and Egypt was also mentioned by foreign minister George Vella, who last week told MaltaToday that a deal with such countries is on the cards but recognised the difficulty of implementing such a plan.

On Wednesday, Muscat told MEPs in Strasbourg that the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey must be replicated with northern African countries, otherwise “Europe will face a major migration crisis”.

This would effectively see the EU push its external borders southwards. The same sources told MaltaToday that if an agreement is reached, people could be transported from Libya to Egypt and Algeria, where they would then be screened to see whether they would be eligible for asylum.

It is not yet clear how the screening would take place, and while government sources said that all operations “must be in accordance with international rules”, the way asylum seekers would be selected is something which will be discussed “once details start being ironed out and discussed.”

Over the years, Malta’s policy on migrants at sea has among others included an attempted pushback of asylum seekers to Libya, which came under fire from human rights organisations over the fact that such actions are illegal under international law.

By Malta’s own admission, Libya is not a safe country, as Maltese citizens are advised not to travel to the troubled North African country and hundreds of Libyan nationals have been granted protection in Malta.

Given the dire situation in Libya, neighbouring countries including Algeria and Egypt have become a promising alternative for asylum seekers.

Both countries were identified among the 16 “priority” countries with which the European Commission wants to reach deals.

In return for various “incentives”, such as development aid and trade, the EU wants cooperation in preventing migrants reaching Europe’s shores and in accepting back deportees. Countries that refuse to cooperate risk what the commission calls “negative incentives.”

Libya deal ‘complicated’

Muscat has acknowledged that striking a deal with Libya – a country ruled by three rival governments and numerous militias – would be “extremely complicated”.

Libya’s lawless state, following the toppling of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has left criminal gangs of migrant smugglers free to send a stream of boats carrying desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

However, Muscat has said that “controversial” solutions need to be pursued and that “the only way to alleviate the situation is with the involvement of countries on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, including with humanitarian corridors.”

Human rights organisations have long called for humanitarian corridors to ensure the safety of the migrants but the EU has so far focussed on stopping boats from leaving Libya.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) 3,156 asylum seekers entered Europe by sea in 2017.

Over three quarters arrived in Italy and the rest in Greece. This compares with 32,317 through the first 18 days of January, 2016.

IOM’s Missing Migrants Project also reported 234 estimated deaths at sea so far this year.

MOAS founder agrees with humanitarian corridors

The founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, Chris Catrambone, has told MaltaToday that, in principle, he is agreement with the Prime Minister’s assertion that the EU must replicate the EU-Turkey deal with Libya, and believes that local and regional NGOs could play an important role.

MOAS co-founder Chris Catrambone
MOAS co-founder Chris Catrambone

“The Prime Minister discussed the essence of the EU-Turkey deal in his address at the European Parliament. He specifically defined ‘essence’ as: fighting human traffickers and enacting Humanitarian Corridors,” said the philanthropist entrepreneur. “I agree with both of these actions and I look forward to hearing more details of the government’s plan.”

But Catrambone acknowledged that any deal could not result in a situation where “vulnerable individuals with a right to apply for asylum” are sent back to a country which “lacks a government authority with full control and sovereignty over all the country’s territory.”

Under the EU-Turkey deal, migrants who arrive in Greece and do not satisfy the criteria to be granted asylum are returned to Turkey. This has led human smugglers to exploit other routes to Europe, such as Libya.

Libya is a major transit country for sub-Saharan Africans to cross over to Europe, with thousands of migrants leaving Libya’s 1,770km-long coast every year. Over 180,000 migrants are estimated to have crossed from Libya since the start of 2015, with numbers shooting up ever since the EU-Turkey deal.

The adaptability of smugglers has been a source of criticism by opponents of the deal who have also voiced concerns about the conditions failed asylum-seekers face upon being returned to Turkey. The UNHCR admitted last month that it does not receive information on the legal status and location of individuals who have been readmitted from Greece, and that it is not always able to track their location and monitor their situation.

Ensuring the safety of failed asylum-seekers in Libya would be significantly more difficult than it is in Turkey, given that the country is in the midst of a civil conflict, with two rival governments vying for power. Speaking to MaltaToday George Vella cast doubt on whether a deal could be struck. “It’s a question of if and when Libya becomes stable,” he said, while pointing out that despite its problems, at least Turkey remains a relatively safe country. “I ask whether Libya is a safe country, and I’ll leave it at that.”

However, despite the current situation in Libya, Catrambone said he was sure that from a logistical perspective humanitarian corridors in Libya can be set up, adding that what is needed is the political will to do so. “Humanitarian corridors would be a valid and sustainable alternative to the dangerous sea crossing, which directly benefits criminals and human traffickers.

“It creates a regular and legal route, directing people away from traffickers, and allowing priority to be given to the most vulnerable while allowing pre-selection and pre-screening to occur, bolstering security and reducing the burden on host nations,” he said.

Moreover, if such corridors are defined as safe transit from a dangerous place to a safe place, “then Libya will have to meet internationally accepted criteria.”

MOAS role

On whether NGOs could play a role in establishing and operating within these corridors, Catrambone said that local and regional NGOs, including MOAS, had a lot to contribute.

“As proven by the humanitarian corridors project in Italy, governments need the support and involvement of civil society organisations in order for such projects to be successful,” he said, referring to a pilot project by the Community of Sant’Egidio and Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, to set up humanitarian corridors that provide refugees with safe passage to Italy.

The project has been running for a year, and through it asylum seekers are identified by specific departments which have been set up in Morocco and Lebanon, before being safely transported to Italy where they are provided with an Italian visa which is valid only in Italy.

‘It is illegal to force refugees to remain in an unsafe country’

Neil Falzon, a human rights lawyer and director of the Aditus Foundation – an NGO dedicated to ensuring human rights access in Malta – said, “I would strongly remind Malta and other EU Member States that it is illegal to force refugees to remain in a country where their lives or security would be at risk.”

“For some years, Malta has officially recognised that Libya is unable to protect its own nationals from the civil conflict plaguing the nation,” he said, adding that Malta has been granting international protection to the vast majority of Libyan nationals seeking protection here.

Neil Falzon
Neil Falzon

“The foundation finds it illogical to, on the one hand, say that Libya is not safe for its own nationals and, on the other hand, try to convince us that it is safe for refugees from other countries,” he continued.

In addition to this, Falzon said that by hosting 6% of the world’s refugees, Europe was definitely not facing a refugee crisis.

“It’s high time the 28 EU governments stopped fuelling panic as this is counterproductive, endangers national security and results in human rights violations we see at the EU’s borders, and just beyond,” he said, adding that Malta should focus on promoting EU solidarity as the “key basis for Europe’s future in this regard.”