The European Union’s xenophobic immigration policy has empowered dangerous Libyan smugglers that fuel Libya’s war economy and traffic Sub-Saharan African migrants. Prior to 2011, the European Union (EU) built Libyan immigration institutions to reduce potential refugees, trafficking victims, and mixed migrants ability to reach Europe. After Libya collapsed, EU policy has continued to deny migrant’s access to safe and legal migration facilitators, which has pushed them into the hands of militias and smugglers exploiting Libya’s low stateness. Since 2013, the EU has cynically tried to reduce the increasing number of mixed migrants by defunding Mare Nostrum, a successful naval program that rescues drowning migrants. As a result, Nigerians fleeing conflict sometimes drown before reaching Europe and petitioning for refugee status. By making it more difficult to reach Europe, desperate mixed migrants grow more dependent on unsafe and illegitimate smugglers and traffickers. The EU must stop cutting migrant’s access to safe migration paths if it wants reduce smuggling and migrant deaths.
Prior to 2011, the EU partnered with Libya to prevent migrants from reaching European countries. In 2000 IOM, EU and Italy provided Libya with border surveillance military equipment and training to prevent migrants from entering or leaving Libya. By 2003, the EU began expanding transit-processing centers on Libyan soil to reduce the number of spontaneous asylum requests, de facto withdrawing from the 1951 UN refugee convention. Amnesty International condemned ex-situ transit-process centers for reducing international law’s protections for refugees. International law guarantees that if a mixed migrant reaches a nation’s soil, then they can petition for refugee status and the government cannot immediately force them to return to their country. Transit processing centers on Libyan soil don’t fall under international law’s refugee protections, forcing many mixed migrants to resort to smuggling networks in order to reach Europe.
After Libya collapsed, the EU eliminated programs that reduced migrant drownings to reduce the number of migrants petitioning for refugee protections. From October 2013-October 2014, Italy operated the Mare Nostrum program to help prevent migrant deaths. In that time, Mare Nostrum rescued an estimated 130,000 people at sea. After October 2014, Frontex replaced Mare Nostrum for Trident, which reduced funding by 8.4 million USD. Under Mare Nostrum, Lampedusa had “five big ships,” but Trident only has “one large vessel and three small patrol boats.” Mare Nostrum’s rescue range has decreased from 70,000 kilometers total to only 30 miles off Italy’s coast. Manpower decreased from 900 military personnel to just 65 officers. The UK claimed that Mare Nostrum “creat[ed] an unintended ‘pull factor,’ encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.” Frontex has provided no empirical support for this conclusion. In fact, Andrijasevic, a labour migration scholar, argues that to support their family from Europe, migrants will attempt many crossings even after they are denied entry or forcibly removed. Many migrants’ families accrue large debts to allow migrants to travel, which motivates them to not give up on their journey despite physical barriers. Perilous conditions do not seem to prevent migrants from attempting Mediterranean crossings, and since cancelling the program, migrants continue to risk their lives to reach Europe—now under even riskier conditions.
European immigration policy helps facilitate Sub-Saharan mixed migrants’ increasing reliance on the smugglers and militias that exploit Libya’s statelessness. Libya’s war economy blurs the line between militias and smugglers as they often work together to smuggle and traffic humans. Smugglers reportedly pay militias bribes ranging from 100 USD to pass a checkpoint to 20,000 USD a month to secure a departure zone. Militias provide smugglers increased legitimacy, security, and access to roads, while smugglers help fund militias. The government can’t stop smuggling because it would diminish their already tenuous legitimacy, hurt their many co-opted militias, and weaken the anemic Libyan economy. As a result, Frontex reported 21,772 migrants heading from Libya on the central Mediterranean route. While price estimates greatly vary based the migrant’s ethnicity, most migrants pay between 1000-2000 USD to cross the Mediterranean. About 200 migrants fit on each boat, at about 1,600 USD per person, meaning most boats gross smugglers about 320,000 USD. If EU immigration policy allowed Sub-Saharan African migrants access legitimate paths to immigration, then the EU could cut money flowing into Libya’s war economy from smuggling.
Libya’s growing smuggling market has increased the number of Nigerian mixed migrants attempting to reach Europe putting them at risk of debt trafficking. Based on open source estimates, Agadez, a transit city for migrants, has seen about 4 times as much migration as pre-2011 Gadhafi levels. Between May 3-9, 51,225 individuals came from Niger to Libya, which accounted for 64% migrants leaving Niger. In 2011-2013 Nigerians were not in the top ten most likely nationalities to “illegally” cross the border. During 2013’s first two quarters Nigerian Illegal border crossing (IBCs) stood at 345, but in 2013’s last two quarters, Nigerian IBCs jumped up to 3041 people. In 2014, there were 8,715 Nigerian detections, and 25,722 “unidentified sub-Saharan nations.” Following this trend, 2015 saw the largest increase in Nigerians “illegally” crossing the border at 23,609.
Incentivizing migrants to use unsafe and illegal routes to the EU stigmatizes and isolates migrants placing them at debt-trafficking risk. Migrants take out large amounts of debt to fund their mixed migration from moneylenders who charge exploitative rates and obtain counterfeit documents. Traffickers lie about the size of debt, easy to pay off the debt, capriciously add to the debt, and limit the trafficked person’s ability to send money home until they repay the debt. As a result, in-debt migrants often don’t understand how much money traffickers claim they owe, and lack access to legal means to extricate themselves from bondage. Depending on the route and the documents forged, debts for trafficked Nigerian women range from EUR 35,000–60,000, which takes 2-5 years to pay off. It takes longer if the trafficked woman requires an abortion from sex-work, which can result in a EUR 10,000 fine from some traffickers.
If the EU wants its immigration policy to match its human rights rhetoric then it must accept more refugees, provide resources for migrants and asylum seekers, and stop cutting safe access for migrants to cross into Europe.