From Blame Game to Cooperation - Coping with the “Migration Crisis” in the Central Mediterranean

Demonstration for the human rights of the Libyan Refugees, victims of the Libyan war.
Teaser Bild Untertitel
Demonstration for the human rights of Libyan Refugees, in Hamburg, 2013


by Derek Lutterbeck

In recent years, the Central Mediterranean has seen a sharp rise in irregular boat migration from the African continent towards European countries. While in other sectors of the Mediterranean/Atlantic, migration towards Europe has declined considerably—for example, migration from the West African coast towards the Canary Islands dropped dramatically since 2006—in the Central Mediterranean arrivals of undocumented immigrants have continued to rise incessantly. In 2008, more than 30,000 sea-borne migrants landed on Lampedusa, up from between 15,000 - 20,000 which had arrived in previous years. Malta, as well, saw a record number of arrivals in 2008, with the figure jumping from around 1,500 in previous years to more than 2,700. While EU countries have been struggling with these arrivals, there has also been a growing humanitarian crisis unfolding in this part of the Mediterranean: according to official estimates around 600 would-be immigrants drown in the Central Mediterranean each year; the figure is probably much higher.

Confronted with this growing “migration crisis” in the Central Mediterranean, the countries and institutions concerned—in particular Italy, Libya, Malta and the EU—have often been rather vocal in putting the blame for the crisis on others, while exculpating themselves from any responsibility. This short article looks at how this “blame game” in the Central Mediterranean has been unfolding, while the migration crisis has continued to deepen. Although the recently initiated cooperation between Italy and Libya has been hailed as a major achievement, it remains to be seen whether this will not to come at the expense of the basic rights of the migrants seeking to reach the EU from the African continent.

The EU-Libyan Blame Game

For EU countries, the main culprit for the growing flow of migrants across the Central Mediterranean has been Libya and its unwillingness to collaborate in the EU’s immigration control efforts. It is commonly agreed that practically all irregular migrants crossing this part of the Mediterranean transit through Libya. However, in contrast to many, or even all, other major transit countries, EU member states have at least until very recently been unsuccessful in enlisting Libya in their immigration prevention measures. In fact, a number of European, and in particular Italian, policy-makers have argued that Libya has not only failed to prevent boats carrying irregular migrants from leaving its coast, but has been actively encouraging Sub-Saharan migrants to embark towards Europe. Moreover, Libyan authorities have also refused to take back undocumented immigrants who have transited through Libya.

Given the lack of Libyan collaboration in this area, EU countries have been arguing that their border control efforts in the Central Mediterranean—which they claim are also aimed at preventing the loss of life at sea—can hardly be successful. In fact, in 2008, the Director of the EU border control agency FRONTEX, Ilkka Laitinen, himself claimed that as Libya refused to cooperate with EU countries in patrolling the Mediterranean and taking back undocumented migrants, FRONTEX operations could not deter irregular migration. On the very contrary, according to Laitinen, the operations were acting as a “ferry service” for the would-be immigrants and thus as pull factor encouraging more migrants to cross.

While Libya has thus come under strong criticism from EU countries for failing to prevent departures of irregular migrants from its coast, Libyan authorities for their part have blamed the EU for not providing sufficient support in controlling its borders, in particular the country’s vast southern borders. While not explicitly refusing to collaborate in the EU’s immigration control measures, Libyan officials have argued that, with its limited means and resources, it is impossible to monitor its long coast line and its extensive desert borders with countries such as Chad, Niger and Sudan. The Libyan leadership has also generally blamed Europeans for causing the current migration crisis in the region. According to Libya, the crisis is one of Europe’s own making: as European colonial powers robbed Africa of its wealth, they created the very conditions leading to emigration from Africa towards Europe. Consequently, according to the Libyan leadership, the main responsibility for addressing the crisis should now also lay with European countries, in that they should foster development and improve the living conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Italian-Maltese Blame Game

Although Italy and Malta have had a common concern in preventing irregular migration from Libya, and have both contributed to the joint FRONTEX operations in the Central Mediterranean, the two countries have often been at loggerheads over their respective responsibilities in dealing with immigrants. This has also been one of the main reasons for the continuous delays of the FRONTEX operations in this part of the Mediterranean. Even though these operations have been carried out on a yearly basis since 2006, every year they have had to be postponed due to disagreements between the two countries over the rules of engagement. Primarily, they have found it difficult to agree on their respective responsibilities for admitting migrants rescued at sea.

The main bone of contention has been over Malta’s vast Search and Rescue Area, which is a legacy of the country’s colonial period. Malta’s Search and Rescue Area spans from the tip of the bay of Tunis all the way to Crete, covering around 250,000 square kilometres. According to Italian authorities, Malta should be responsible for taking in all migrants who are rescued within this area. The Maltese position, by contrast, is that according to the current legal situation, rescued migrants should be brought to the nearest safe port, regardless of whether or not they are in Malta’s search and rescue area. Malta’s obligation is to “coordinate” operations in this area, but not to accept all rescued or intercepted migrants.

Tensions between the two countries rose to a high point in April 2009, when there were several incidents where migrants were rescued in Malta’s search and rescue area but closer to the Italian island of Lampedusa. In one incident, a Turkish vessel which had rescued more than 150 migrants, some of whom needed urgent medical attention, was unable to disembark on either Lampedusa or Malta for four days, as the two countries disagreed over who was responsible for admitting the migrants. By the time the Italian authorities finally let the vessel land on Lampedusa, at least one of the migrants—a pregnant woman—had died. In several of these incidents, Italian and Maltese naval boats even came close to a head-on confrontation, as they tried to block each others’ naval vessels from entering their territorial waters in order to “unload” rescued migrants. While Malta has continued to emphasize the legality of its position under international law, Italian authorities have submitted a “dossier” to the European Commission which allegedly documents more than 600 cases in which Malta refused to comply with its international obligations, and in which Italy had to step in to rescue migrants at sea.

Blaming the lack of EU solidarity: The issue of “burden sharing”

While Italy and Malta have been squabbling over their respective responsibilities in rescuing and admitting sea-borne migrants, the two countries have also criticized the lack of support from the EU in coping with a problem that they essentially consider a European and not an Italian or Maltese one. Both Italy and Malta have been calling for more EU solidarity, in the form of both financial support and “burden-sharing” mechanisms. Notably, both countries have also argued that they are not intended destinations of the irregular immigrants, and that most of them want to reach other EU countries. According to Maltese officials, practically none of the migrants landing on Malta had the intention to come to Malta, while Italian officials claim that 80% of those arriving on Lampedusa wish to proceed to other EU countries.

Malta, which due to its small size and high population density has felt particular hard hit by the growth in irregular immigration, has been especially vocal in demanding more EU “burden sharing”. A key issue for Malta has been the so-called Dublin Convention, which provides that the EU member country in which the asylum seeker first enters shall be responsible for processing the application. While the main rationale of the Dublin Convention has been to prevent “asylum shopping” within the EU, Malta has been arguing that it imposes a disproportionate burden on small countries which happen to be located at the EU’s external borders, and are thus obliged to deal with all asylum seekers entering the EU through their territory. As a consequence, Malta has been calling for an urgent revision of the Dublin rules and the introduction of a burden-sharing mechanism under which asylum seekers arriving in Malta would be distributed among EU countries on a proportional basis. Even though the current Dublin regulations remain unchanged, Malta achieved at least a limited recognition of its problem when a clause on voluntary burden sharing was included in the Migration Pact adopted in 2008 under the French EU presidency.

Malta has also been deploring the rather limited support provided by other EU countries to the joint FRONTEX operations. Indeed, even though on paper EU countries have pledged a considerable amount of assets, those actually made available for the FRONTEX operations in the Central Mediterranean have been very limited, usually amounting to no more than 2-3 aircraft and 1-2 boats. As a consequence, according to Maltese officials, the Maltese Navy has remained responsible for 90% of the surface coverage in Malta’s search and rescue area, even in the framework of the FRONTEX operations.

Libya’s turnaround

Most recently, there seems to have been an turnaround in Libya’s position, in that the country has for the first time accepted to take back undocumented migrants who have been intercepted at sea. In April 2009, Italy started returning rescued migrants who had been picked up in international waters back to Libya. By mid-May several hundred undocumented migrants had already been taken back to Libya by Italian naval vessels.

Italian officials have hailed the new policy as an important breakthrough after long and arduous diplomatic efforts to convince Libya to readmit irregular migrants. With the change in Libya’s position, the relationship between Italy and Malta regarding the immigration issue also seems to have improved markedly. The two countries have highlighted the “golden opportunity” that has now been created in resolving the problem of irregular migration in the Central Mediterranean.

The Human Rights Dimension

The collaboration between Italy and Libya in preventing migration across the Mediterranean has officially been declared as “historic” and as a model to be followed by other European countries. However, the new policy has also been sharply criticized by UN bodies and various human rights organizations alike. UNHCR, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have pointed out that pushing back intercepted migrants to their point of departure is incompatible with the Geneva Refugee Convention, as potential refugees are thus effectively prevented from lodging an application for political asylum. Moreover, externalizing migration control towards Libya seems particularly problematic, given that the country has not signed the Geneva Refugee Convention, and abuses of undocumented migrants are reportedly widespread in Libya.

To some extent, EU countries seem to be aware of the problematic nature of their new policy, and both Malta and Italy have suggested that an UNHCR office should be established in Libya to deal with asylum applications. While creating a system whereby prospective asylum seekers can effectively apply for political asylum already before they embark on a hazardous journey across the Mediterranean might indeed be a sensible solution to the current migration crisis, it remains to be seen whether or not this new policy will not ultimately come at the expense of the rights and security of the would-be immigrants seeking to reach the EU from the south.


Bild entfernt.

Dr. Derek Lutterbeck is lecturer in international history and deputy director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, University of Malta.