Libya's Impact on EU? A Key Issue Is Refugees Now -- and Migration Later (3/03)     Print Email

The most tangible international action so far in the Libyan crisis has taken the form of EU nations’ evacuation flights to lift civilians out of the strife zone and border refuges. These flights have come mainly from the UK and France, and are now supplemented by U.S. military aircraft ordered to this mission by President Obama on March 3.

In the longer run, a possible outflux of Libyans fleeing their own country may prove to be a major political headache for the EU authorities, further complicating the already fraught dealings among member states on issues of immigration and asylum. (An excellent account of this issue has appeared in the blog of a Brussels-based Financial Times blogger who has visited Malta, one of the key potential European arrival points in the Mediterranean.)

Beyond the priority of repatriating their own citizens, the EU humanitarian flights have also started ferrying non-Europeans out of the border refuge zones in Egypt and Tunisia to airports where they can make their way back to their own countries in the Near East and Africa. (Greek ferries – lucratively chartered by China and other governments – have brought out nearly 20,000 foreigners: ship-owners are already estimating their profits on these operations at more than $20 million.)  All these efforts will be dwarfed, both in human numbers and in risk – if Libya crumbles in civil war and Libyans themselves start fleeing the country. If the country becomes a war zone like Somalia, refugees could claim political asylum on the grounds that their lives were endangered in their homeland. That would be a major headache for the EU, where many member states are already suffering domestic political strains over immigration amid economic depression.

Perhaps even worse is the longer-run broad issue of migrants – Arab and African – trying to reach Europe illegally and putting permanent pressure on the southern member states to stem this tide. Until now, Libya has been a lynchpin in European programs to seal off the Mediterranean from would-be migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.  With his vision of special ties to Africa, Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi had permitted hundreds of thousands of Africans into Libya, and then agreed to bottle them up there in a secretive deal between Tripoli and Rome (that subsequently received quiet EU blessing).  The terms of the exchange have never been publicly disclosed, but the result involved Libya’s willingness to intercept human-smuggling boats leaving the coast and even to take back people picked by the EU’s Frontex border patrols -- a Libyan policy that largely shut down what had been a bustling traffic. Criticized by human rights groups, this pact with Libya was paralleled by a similar one with Tunisia: when it collapsed in the overthrow of the regime in Tunis, more than 5,000 Tunisians managed to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa. Other EU states have been reluctant to respond to Italian appeals in handling this influx.

The border arrangement with Libya now seems threatened with collapse in the short run, and no one is ready to predict what the long-term outcome may be on this crucial issue for the EU.