Sunday 20 March 2011

Will Gaddafi be able to unleash a migration invasion?

In the wake of the unexpected UN Security Council resolution and subsequent attacks by French, British and US forces against Libyan military goals, Gaddafi has today announced that he stops cooperation with the EU in stemming illegal migration from Libya. In the past few weeks, Gaddafi has already repeatedly threatened to open the migration floodgates if European governments would keep on supporting protesters against his regime.
But how realistic is it that Gaddafi could unleash a migration invasion to Europe? Although the crisis and falling away of controls might well lead to a certain increase in migration, it seems a delusion that Gaddafi can unleash a massive wave of migrants.
Gaddafi has consistently used the mass migration threat as a tool to blackmail his European negotiation partners. Besides oil, the migration issue was one of the main negotiations chips he used to forge partnerships with EU countries, and Italy in particular, to regain international respectability over the past decade.
It therefore served him well that there occurred a certain increase in illegal boat migration from North African and, increasingly, sub-Saharan migrants from the Libyan coast to Italy and Malta in the early 2000s. This increase was mainly the result of increasing controls on other parts of the Mediterranean coast (such as the Strait of Gibraltar) and was part of the usual cat-and-mouse-game between border controls on the hand and migrants and smugglers on the other. It was also a partial reaction to an increase in racist violence in Libya against sub-Saharan migrant workers.
However, it is important to remind that this regular cross-Mediterranean boat migration has never exceeded several tens of thousands per years, or about 2 percent of total EU immigration, even if it disproportionally affects particular islands and countries like Lampedusa in Italy and Malta. This illegal boat migration has been taking place since the early nineties, when most European countries introduced visa requirements for North Africans which stopped seasonal and largely circular migration and forced them to migrate illegally. In recent years, more sub-Saharan African workers have joined these flows.

However, in terms of numbers, this migration nothing to do with an invasion or a “biblical exodus” recently presaged by Italian interior minister Moroni.
Both Gaddafi and European and, particularly, Italian governments have had an interest in casting illegal migration across the Mediterranean as an existential threat to Europe by hugely exaggerating the true scale of this migration.
This allowed them to position themselves as important "frontline" countries in countering the perceived migration siege of "Fortress Europe". The consistent use of belligerent terms such as “fighting illegal migration” by governments and migration agencies like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Frontex, the EU’s border agency, are less innocent than they seem, as they have served to cast migration as a threat.

Politicians and migration agencies have an interest in migration being "problematised". The more migration is seen as a threat, the bigger the financial and electoral support for governments and agencies which are seen as capable of stopping migrants from coming or sending them back.
And this is what has exactly happened over the past few years. In 2004, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi signed a pact to curb irregular migration to Italy, with Libya agreeing to deport sub-Saharan migrants over Libyan territory to their origin countries. Refugees have been deported back to countries like Eritrea and Sudan where they faced persecution, which was a clear violation of human rights and refugee law.  Italy has also drawn criticism for handing over to Libya migrants it intercepts at sea, without screening first whether they might seek asylum.
Ironically, it served Italy well that Gaddafi was a systematic human rights violator. This made him the perfect partner to prevent migrants from leaving and to deport migrants or imprison them in desert camps under inhumane conditions. After all, police states are better able to control migration exactly because they violate basic human rights. This is another dimension of the problematic and perverse nature of “dealing with dictators”.
From the European side, fear-mongering about a looming migration invasion seems part of a deliberate, electoral strategy.  The invasion imaging fits perfectly into the strategy of a new generation of European politicians who, since the end of the Cold War, have defined (mass) immigration as the central problem of our time. They also skillfully amalgamate fear of immigration and Islam. Populist politicians who link most social and economic problems to “mass immigration” have therefore an interest in a strong magnification of the actual migration phenomenon.
In their efforts, such politicians are aided by sensationalist media, who unfortunately tend interpret the sight of each fishing boat overloaded with migrants as a harbinger of the coming African exodus. All this together creates the image of a threat, the "black danger”, or even literally an “immigration tsunami.
This casting migration as a “threat”, a tidal wave (that only Libya and Italy) can stem – is deeply problematic. First, it dehumanizes migrants and refugees and undermines the protection they deserve. Second, it exaggerates the de facto limited scale of trans-Mediterranean boat migration. Third, it ignores that this migration is largely driven by demand for cheap migrant labour in Europe.
Fourth, it is based on the false assumption that all sub-Saharan migrants in North Africa are in transit to Europe and waiting for the first occasion to jump on the boat. For instance, Frontex recently stated that as many as 1.5 million migrants are ready to risk anything to set foot on European soil (watch this video). Over the past decade, Gaddafi and European politicians have repeatedly used this apocalyptic imagery to raise alarm on migration. Gaddafi did not shy away from outright mass migration blackmailing. On a visit to Italy in August 2010, Gaddafi said that the EU should pay Libya at least 5bn euros a year to stop illegal African immigration and avoid a “black Europe”.
This is pure misleading manipulation, as it totally ignores that, first and foremost, Libya is an immigration country in its own right. Most migrants have come there to work. Many of them are from sub-Saharan countries. This was proven by the large majority of the over 300,000 migrants who have crossed the Libyan-Egyptian and Libyan-Tunisian borders want to go home. The hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) of migrants still staying in Libya either do not wish to go back or are impoverished sub-Saharan migrants that lack the means to go back or fear to become the victim of racist attacks as they risk to be mistaken as “mercenaries”.
Most observers and the media think that most African migrants use Libya as a transit country on their way to Europe. Gaddafi has shrewdly exploited this fear of an African invasion to position himself as a partner in the so-called ‘fight against illegal immigration’ – which has earned him billions of dollars in bilateral deals. But it has little to do with reality. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming weeks and months, and much will obviously depend on the continuation and severity of violence affecting Libya. But one thing seems sure: It is a delusion that most African migrants in Libya would be willing or have the means to massively jump on fishing boats to Europe. Most are trying to get home, and the real drama is that many are trapped in the conflict and cannot get away.
Surely, the falling away of controls is likely to lead to an increase of cross-Mediterranean migration of North Africans as well as sub-Saharans. And there may also be an increasing number of Libyans amongst these migrants and refugees. There have also been allegations that Gaddafi is planning to willingly launch boats loaded with African migrants from the Libyan coast to substantiate his recent threats. This would be a grave violation of human rights he would probably not shy away from if he is still able to put this idea in practice.
There is reason to believe that, if the Libyan conflict persists, this may increasingly become a migration of refugees rather than of potential workers. The longer the violence continues, the greater the risks of a real refugee crisis, including the necessity that an increasing number of Libyans and migrant workers trapped in Libya will seek protection and asylum in Europe. Over the pas week, there has indeed been a striking increase in the number of Libyans fleeing the country.
However, this has nothing to do with a “biblical exodus” or an immigrant invasion. In that sense, Gaddafi’s threats are largely void. The idea that Gaddafi alone can swamp Europe with African migrants is a delusion, illustrating his megalomaniac character rather than anything else.
The “myth of invasion” has been willingly created by Gaddafi and European politicians to serve their own geo-political, electoral and financial interests. This has only reinforced the idea that (African and Muslim) migrants are an existential threat to European societies. This undermines the support for the protection of rights of migrants and refugees, as has already happened under the European migration deals with Gaddafi. Politicians, media and migration agencies have a moral duty to stop fear mongering about an impending migration invasion and to base their statements on evidence rather than unfounded fears.
For European politicians, the embarrassing “Gaddafi experience” will hopefully stop them to forge perverse migration deals with human rights violating dictators.

Some background readings

Paoletti, Emanuela  and Ferruccio Pastore (2011) Sharing the dirty job on the southern front? Italian–Libyan relations on migration and their impact on the European Union. Working Paper, International Migration Institute (IMI), University of Oxford.
Bredeloup, Sylvie and Olivier Pliez (2011) The Libyan Migration Corridor. Florence, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.
de Haas, Hein (2006) Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends. Migration Information Source, November 2006.  
de Haas, Hein (2008) The myth of invasion: The inconvenient realities of migration from Africa to the European Union. Third World Quarterly, 29 (7): 1305-1322


  1. i completely disagree that the subsaharan migration to europe was exaggerated in numbers. In malta we bore the brunt...i live close by an open centre. It is not fair for us residents close by an open centre of a pop between 1000 to 2000 and we are just 5300 to be subject to people who urinated in public, caused fights, shoplifted, and there was even a case of rape. One classic case involved an Ethiopian who also threatened a police inspector and was placed in jail for 13months. Things have quietened down but only because the population got more vigilant and angry at this arrogance and mind you half of these people had NO right to stay in malta. ok libya is what it is now but why is it that these people did not choose any safer nearby countries for refuge, rather than go to libya? Most of the somalis, ethiopians, eritreans could have done so by going to kenya or egypt.

  2. Did you read the post? "[I]t is important to remind that this regular cross-Mediterranean boat migration has never exceeded several tens of thousands per years, or about 2 percent of total EU immigration, even if it disproportionally affects particular islands and countries like Lampedusa in Italy and Malta." _Disproportionately._

    "ok libya is what it is now but why is it that these people did not choose any safer nearby countries for refuge, rather than go to libya?"

    The mixed quality of immigration flows to Libya, a combination of labour migration and refugees etc., is key to remember. And are Kenya and Egypt really that safe destinations for refugees? (I ask our host.)


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