EU rebuked for €36bn refugee pushback gambit

The European Union should increase their spending in Africa by more than 20% over the next seven years to a minimum of €36 billion (£31 billion) in an attempt to reduce the number of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea.

But a succession of reports funded by the EU or written by leading MEPs say European efforts to stem the flow is characterised by misdirected finances, lack of accountability and repeated breaches of basic human rights, including an inability to undermine the business model of human trafficking, an industry worth as much as £35bn a year.

Special concern has been expressed that EU funds are being used to give bonuses to the Italian-trained Libyan coastguard to force boats back to Africa.

The arrival of millions of refugees in Europe – and the deaths of thousands more attempting the crossing – has become the continent’s biggest policy headache, now threatening the stability of the German government and the cohesion of the EU.

The biggest challenge is Libya, where deepening political chaos has led to more than 500,000 people crossing into Italy in recent years, hastening the election of a populist government in Rome that is now threatening to form an anti-migrant “axis of the willing” with like-minded central and eastern European countries.

Politicians are scrambling for a new formula not just to distribute the people who have reached Europe but also to return those whose asylum claims are refused. The EU is also searching for a credible means to reduce the incentive for people to come to Europe. The fate of mainstream social democratic and centrist parties in next spring’s European elections may rest on the outcome.

A detailed examination of EU efforts to tackle the issue finds a “mismatch between the grandiloquent declarations and the action actually implemented on the ground”.

The study by the watchdog Eunpack, based on local interviews, reports a “troubling lack of monitoring and impact evaluation schemes across most of the EU crisis response initiatives in Libya”.

It concludes: “The outsourcing of migration management to Libyan authorities and the dramatic increase in the number of people in custody in Libyan detention centres is fuelling a criminal economy of exploitation and traffic.”

Similarly, a separate study of the EU’s €144m effort to build internal security in Niger and Mali, two countries bordering Libya, found little or slow progress. The report, published by the EU court of auditors this week, found a quarter of posts vacant, slow training of local security forces and no evidence of sustainability.

“If you want to manage migration and if you want to prevent further security threats in particular terrorism, there is one single place where you have to invest all your political, economic and diplomatic efforts and that is the belt of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa,” said the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, in an interview. “That is where all our challenges could be solved, or could deteriorate into something dangerous.”

William Swing, the head of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), has called for recognition that the deaths in the Mediterranean are a symptom of a profound shift. “ For three centuries Europe populated the world … and today, because of the demographics and the low birth rate, it has become a continent of destination: this is a psychological adjustment that has not been made.”

Swing said the EU had to end the current chaotic migration, and in particular the trafficking model. Although the numbers reaching Europe by sea this year are likely to be the lowest since 2013, the risks being taken are just as deadly and the trafficking system is still endemic.

Claude Moraes, a Labour MP for London, and one of the few parliamentarians to risk visiting Libya, inspected Tariq al-Siqqa detention centre camp near Tripoli in May and said the horror of what he saw still disturbed him. “There were women that were victims of multiple rapes. Others were just prostrate on the floor in filthy conditions, too traumatised to talk,” he said. He has called for the camps to be closed.

His team’s report was critical of the Italian-trained Libyan coastguard, now tasked with stopping migrants and refugees heading out to sea. “It is objectionable that the EU continues to support the Libyan coastguard in any way. Other ways for the EU to assist in the management of the crisis in relation to migrants leaving have to be found,” it said. Moraes alleged many coastguard members operating in Libyan coastal waters were in league with or related to the traffickers.

Swing said a solution was for migrants and refugees turned back by the coastguard to be processed by the UN immediately upon reaching shore, rather than being returned to camps where they may be subject to torture to extract more money from their families. The camps – even those run by the government or inspected occasionally by the IOM – just fuelled an economy built on smuggling.

The EU’s inability to operate inside Libyan sovereign space what it can do to disrupt the smugglers. Few of the big gang leaders, instrumental in sending out more than 600 rubber boats in 2017 alone, venture outside Libyan waters themselves.

The IOM has chalked up some successes. It claims to have taken 100,000 migrants home voluntarily from Europe, pulled 30,000 out of Libyan detention centres and 10,000 out of migratory paths towards Libya.

Swing backed the idea of asylum processing centres being established in the migratory corridors bordering Libya, such as Niger and Chad. The idea was touted by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, a year ago, and Italy’s new prime minister, Guiseppe Conte, welcomed the revival of the idea when the two leaders met last week.

The reality is that 90% of claimants would be rejected on the basis that they are economic migrants, and the danger is that third-country processing centres become detention centres, as in Australia. But the fact that the idea is back on the table a year after it was rejected by the previous Italian government shows how slowly the wheels of a divided EU and ill-equipped Sahel grind. Meanwhile, impatient voters turn to the populists and the lure of an instant solution.

Macron knows more than anyone that striking deals concerning such a fragile state as Libya does not guarantee progress. A month after he persuaded the chief Libyan political actors at a meeting in Paris to work towards elections at the end of the year, the Libyan oil industry is once again a pawn in a political game, with Sidra and Ras Lanuf oil port terminals ablaze and seized by a set of militia excluded from the talks.