European Union | VIEWS & NOTES

How do we solve the Mediterranean migration quandary?

Migrants are still risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean; we must challenge the rhetoric of ‘invasion’ and examine the deeper reasons for migration, writes Nando Sigona

Nando Sigona / October 2023

Despite multiple attempts by European states to curtail irregular crossings, migrants are still prepared to brave the waters of the Mediterranean to reach perceived safety in Europe, risking their lives in a bid for sanctuary. Yet politicians seem reluctant to explore the underlying reasons for the continuing exodus via North Africa.

Tunisia is experiencing a phase of rising xenophobia combined with economic and financial upheaval, and yet it remains a safer and easier transit country than war-torn Libya for those seeking entry into Europe through the Mediterranean route. Only 99 miles separate the port of Sfax in Tunisia from Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost outpost, offering a much shorter and safer sea crossing compared to other Central Mediterranean routes.

Journeys departing from Eastern Libya, the region controlled by the Wagner-assisted troupes of General Khalifa Haftar, have a higher mortality rate – a tragic example of which is June’s shipwreck off the coast of Pylos, in Greece, when up to 500 migrants died or went missing.

Given the amount of financial, logistical, and technological resources involved, Tunisia may be more willing in the coming months to patrol its borders, disrupting smugglers’ logistical infrastructures and intercepting boats at sea. Whilst this may reduce departures from the country, it is likely to make the route more deadly – pushing smugglers to resort to taking greater risks.

Professor Nando Sigona, Scientific Coordinator, I-CLAIM

The EU-Tunisia joint declaration on irregular migration in June, and the memorandum of understanding signed in July, have to date had a limited impact on irregular crossings from Tunisia and departures have reached unprecedented levels for this route over the summer months. After thousands more migrants reached Lampedusa in the last few weeks alone, under pressure from the Italian government, a reluctant EU eventually agreed to release the first instalment of the funding committed in the Tunisa-EU memorandum.

Is this going to be a game-changer? Italian PM Giorgia Meloni hopes that the partnership with Tunisia will replicate the ‘success’ – in terms of drastically reducing arrivals – of the 2016 EU-Turkey deal. Given the amount of financial, logistical, and technological resources involved, Tunisia may be more willing in the coming months to patrol its borders, disrupting smugglers’ logistical infrastructures and intercepting boats at sea. Whilst this may reduce departures from the country, it is likely to make the route more deadly – pushing smugglers to resort to taking greater risks. These measures may also prompt smugglers to relocate their operations elsewhere; operating in areas where political instability makes control of the territory by authorities more difficult, leading to a rise in departures elsewhere along the southern Mediterranean coast. Arguably, the rise of departures from Tunisia can be seen as a collateral effect of the close cooperation of the EU with Libyan authorities.

As other measures listed in the recently launched EU’s 10-point plan on irregular migration, the partnership with Tunisia primarily targets those offering services to migrants, aiming at disrupting the smuggling business model. It does little to address or even understand the drivers of current migration flows, that’s to say the reasons why there is such a high demand for the services provided by smugglers, along the Central Mediterranean route. The short answer is that there are almost no safe and legal routes to Europe.

Unlike the Mediterranean ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015-16 which was primarily driven by the forced displacement of one group – Syrians escaping from the war – the profile of current arrivals is more varied with no single nationality above 14% of arrivals and 16% of arrivals from ‘other countries’ with only a handful of arrivals each. There are multiple and interconnected drivers behind the current migration movements in the Central Mediterranean. Countries in the Global South are ill-equipped to handle the long-term and interwoven impacts of COVID-19, climate and environmental breakdown, and food and energy crises driven by the war in Ukraine. Migration is, in these circumstances, a way to diversify sources of income and mitigate political and economic uncertainty, functioning as a fundamental safety net for families who see their livelihood under threat.

The ongoing migration situation in the Mediterranean underscores the urgency to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘invasion’ peddled by opposing political factions in the European Union and the weaponisation of migrants[1] to serve political interests in view of the forthcoming European Parliament Election. We must move towards finding comprehensive and sustainable solutions that address both the immediate humanitarian needs of migrants and refugees and the underlying drivers of migration, including the medium and longer-term impacts of externalisation of EU borders on the political stability in EU’s neighbouring countries.

[1] Migration diplomacy and the weaponisation of migrants is the theme of this episode of the Who Do We Think We Are? podcast with Micheala Benson and Nando Sigona

Interview on Europe's responses to irregular crossings

by CNA News (Singapore) speaks to Nando Sigona

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