The EU-Libya Deal and its Lasting Repercussions

In 2017, the European Union (EU) entered into an arrangement with the Libyan government aimed at reducing migration across the Mediterranean Sea. Simultaneously, the Italian government entered into an additional bilateral agreement with the North African country. These deals, along with other efforts coordinated between EU member states, were a response to hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers taking the world’s most dangerous migration route to European soil. According to the UNHCR, between 2014 and 2017, over 1.5 million people attempted the crossing. To date, 2.3 million have taken the journey with at least 24,400 dead or missing as a result. The deals between the EU and Libya provide training and technical assistance to the Libyan Coast Guard and other migration control authorities in the country, along with direct financial and material support for operations on land and at sea. EU authorities claim that these measures are aimed at reducing dangerous crossings, but the Libyan Coast Guard’s extensive repatriation of those attempting to make the journey, along with increased border security and migrant detention add up to a tremendous network of externalized border controls that inhibit refugees’ ability to make asylum claims. Now, five years from the beginning of these agreements and operations, a legacy of continually expanding borders and human rights abuses directed at refugees has crystallized, and these practices show no sign of slowing down any time soon.

Over the last 6 years, I’ve seen the best and the worst of humanity and European values laid bare on our borders. I lost count of the dead that I’ve seen a long time ago. My memories are of drowned bodies floating in the water; kids with empty eyes looking to nowhere in the sky as I try in vain to resuscitate them; grown men scrambling for survival, clawing at the waves in desperation and hope of finding something to hold onto; desperate faces of parents throwing their children to me in the hope that at least their kids survive, and mothers looking for their kids who were lost in the water. – Brendan Woodhouse (Sea-Watch, Search and Rescue)

The EU-Libya Deal

The European Union’s agreements with Libya have to-date drastically reduced the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants attempting the Mediterranean passage each year. This has been accomplished through a variety of programs that provide technical expertise, coordination, and monetary contributions to the Libyan border authorities. In the 5 years since these programs began, the EU has directed somewhere around €100 million directly to the government’s border control and coast guard, with hundreds of millions more going to other projects in Libya aimed at stabilization and management of migration flows.

Source: Libyan Express

Utilising its advanced training and coordination through these programs, the Libyan Coast Guard has intercepted over 80,000 migrants and returned them to Libya where they are processed. Those who apply for asylum are forced to wait in Libya while their applications are considered. Many are detained by the Libyan authorities, and others are transferred or deported to neighbouring countries. Many more migrants and refugees are stopped before they can even make it to the Mediterranean, as the increased presence of Libyan border patrols has cracked down on routes used around the country and at its land borders.

Since the implementation of the EU agreements, yearly arrivals have never come close to reaching their 2015-2017 peak.  In many ways, the goal of reducing migration to the EU has been achieved, but it has come at the expense of the rights of refugees and the obligations of the EU countries funding these programs.

Outcomes and Legacies of the Deal

When the 2017 agreements were signed, scholars and activists raised human rights concerns and noted the potential of these reactive programs to create further humanitarian crises in North Africa. Despite assurances from EU authorities that the Libyan government would be held to high standards of conduct with respect to human rights, the previous half-decade has proven that Libya does not have the institutional capacity to carry out these migration agreements while upholding standards of international human rights law.

Militias, armed groups, and human traffickers operate across the country exploiting refugees and migrants with little threat of police intervention. When refugees find themselves in the hands of Libyan authorities instead of criminal groups, they are criminalized, detained, and deported. The United Nations OHCHR notes that

“The Libyan legal framework criminalizes the irregular entry, stay and exit of migrants from Libyan territory imposes mandatory detention and deportation of all foreign nationals convicted of “acts of illegal immigration”, and does not guarantee the rights of specific legal categories of migrants—such as refugees, migrant workers, victims of trafficking, or children—as provided under international law”

This absence of institutional protections for refugees and migrants has led very directly to human rights violations. The United Nations Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya has cited violations of international humanitarian law at migrant detention centres, and has found strong evidence confirming acts of murder, torture, imprisonment, and sexual violence committed by Libyan authorities against migrants. In their most recent report, the fact-finding mission explicitly criticizes Libya’s international partners in the field of migration for doing little to reform these practices and address the crimes investigated by the mission.

Source: The Globe Post

Despite years of such accusations and investigations, the situation in Libya and the Mediterranean has not been cohesively addressed by any government entity, and the recommendations of the fact-finding mission have gone unheeded. Weak institutional accountability for the Libyan government mirrors the weak institutional accountability that European countries have in the face of these allegations. These agreements provide enough deniability for European governments to not be directly held responsible for human rights abuses that they have negligently funded and indirectly encouraged. Unfortunately, despite criticisms and abuses, the regime of externalized border controls and offshore human rights violations seems to be the way forward.

Looking Ahead

If the EU has learned anything from its agreements with Libya, it is that this is an effective strategy for reducing the number of refugees and asylum seekers on European soil. While these deals are criticized by activists and NGOs, the outsourcing of border controls has allowed the EU to close its Mediterranean borders without technically violating its obligations under international human rights law. These methods are predicated on the desire to keep refugees out of the EU while their asylum claims are processed, or to unload them in other countries in North Africa instead of providing the kind of protections outlined in the Refugee Convention. The EU seems willing to spend any amount of money on offshore obligations to refugees, and Libya has been a testing ground to demonstrate the efficacy of this strategy.

In October of 2022, the EU began the first phase of an €80 million border management agreement with the Egyptian government that will provide surveillance equipment, SAR vessels, satellite positioning systems, and more. Frontex, the EU’s border authority, is working with the government of Niger to “tackle migrant smuggling” taking place on the Niger-Libya border. The government of Tunisia refused a deal to work directly with Frontex, but signed a deal with the EU in 2021 that could see up to €85 million directed to its border and surveillance systems. The €6 billion EU-Turkey deal represents the most extensive and expensive version of this brand of externalized border controls and has seen an immense amount of criticism from human rights groups since its implementation in 2016.

These countries, all in various states of civil and political unrest, and all with widespread human rights concerns, represent the present and future of European border control. In the wake of the mass migrations across the Mediterranean, the EU began frantically searching for ways to offload the millions displaced by war, unrest, and hardship. It is tragic that the European response to the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War is to do anything possible to escape its obligations to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations. But after 5 years of the EU-Libya deal, it seems that the lasting lesson for Europe in the face of this crisis is that offshoring refugees and human rights abuses is an easier pill to swallow.