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Aug 24, 2016 | 17:43 GMT

Libya, EU Come to an Agreement on Migrants

Libyan coast guard vessels detain a boat carrying migrants hoping to enter Europe illegally.
(MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

The EU Naval Force Mediterranean, also known as Operation Sophia, has agreed to help Libya combat human trafficking from the Middle East and Africa by sea. On Aug. 23 it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Libyan coast guard in Rome that will establish a program to train the Libyan coast guard and navy. The European Union also hopes to improve Libya's ability to secure its territorial waters and stop the flow of migrants from Libya to Italy. Libya has had difficulty stabilizing since the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and the country has become the main departure point for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe through Italy. According to the International Organization of Migration, more than 100,000 people have already traveled the route this year, down slightly from the same point in 2015.

The European Union was constrained in the type of deal it could strike with Libya. Because the country's government is so fractured, the bloc could not negotiate an agreement similar to the deal it reached with Turkey to incentivize the acceptance of migrants in exchange for certain privileges (in Turkey's case, visa-free travel for its citizens in Europe). After implementing the deal with Turkey, migration across the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece drastically decreased. But migration through the central Mediterranean from Libya to Italy remained unaffected, increasing as it normally does during the warmer summer months.

After EU Naval Forces Mediterranean was established in June 2015, it began to study smuggling activity. In early October, it then started boarding, searching, seizing and diverting boats suspected of human smuggling in international waters. It has been limited, however, by the fact that it cannot enter Libyan waters. In June this year, the agency's mandate was expanded to include policing the U.N. arms embargo for Libya and training the Libyan coast guard and navy. The Aug. 23 agreement makes the latter more feasible. Under the deal, the first phase of training will take place onboard the mission's ships at high sea. The second part will occur in either European or Libyan waters, and the third phase will take place onboard Libyan boats.

That Rome was where the deal was signed is no coincidence. Increased migration has become a problem for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande on Aug. 23 and discussed, among other things, the Italian aircraft carrier to be used in the EU Naval Forces Mediterranean mission. According to Renzi, Italy needs more support from the European Union to manage migration. An EU plan to redistribute thousands of migrants from member states on the front lines (Italy, Greece and Hungary) to other member states largely failed: Only about 4,000 migrants of the planned 160,000 were relocated. After the Aug. 23 meeting, Germany committed to take in hundreds of refugees each month starting in September. However, the EU relocation program only applies to asylum seekers, whereas most people reaching Italy are economic migrants entering illegally from Africa.

Meanwhile, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives has passed a vote of no confidence against Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj's government. Al-Sarraj had been hoping to receive the institution's stamp of approval since he arrived in Tripoli in late March. On Aug 24, al-Sarraj announced that the current Cabinet would serve as a caretaker government and that it would accept the outcome of the vote. This will put the U.N.-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) in a bind, since it was supposed to be approved by the House of Representatives before coming into force. Europe and the United States continue to back the GNA, though, and this training deal shows that their support is unlikely to wane.

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