Europe Must Act to Solve Its Migration Problem

March 12, 2023 Topic: Migration Region: Mediterranean Tags: EuropeItalyMigrant CrisisMediterraneanEU

Europe Must Act to Solve Its Migration Problem

Unless the policy formulation process is fixed, there can be no comprehensive approach to migration.


Migration, especially from Africa, has been rising over the past decade. But Europe’s leadership does not seem particularly focused on it. At the forefront is Italy, which for years has been trying to stem an increasing flow of migrants, along with other Mediterranean nations—Greece, Spain, Malta, and Cyprus. Planning a truly shared policy among European states is certainly difficult, but the migration phenomenon will likely increase exponentially in the coming years. Libya is the springboard for thousands of migrants. Its weak government is not up to the challenge, presenting an obstacle that the European Union must deal with soon.

Of particular concern is irregular migration, which happens outside the laws of the sending or receiving countries. In 2022, the European Border Security Agency, FRONTEX, counted 330,000 irregular entries within European borders: an increase of 64 percent compared to the previous year and the highest number since 2016. These numbers did not include the more than 13 million Ukrainian refugees who “were counted on entry” after fleeing Russia’s invasion.


To be sure, this year’s preliminary figures were down 12 percent from the previous year, in large part due to poor weather conditions on sea routes to Europe. Numbers are still lower than in 2015, when nearly a million migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees entered Europe. However, the flow of migrants is unlikely to peter out.

Why Migration Will Continue to Be a Problem for Europe

Libya is historically a jumping-off point for departure to Europe and neighboring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. Nearly 680,000 migrants of more than forty-one nationalities were registered in Libya in July-August 2022, mostly coming from Niger, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria.

In addition to migrants fleeing political, security, and economic crises, migrants are coming in increasing numbers from crises related to climate change. These so-called climate migrants have always been there, but the trend looks set to increase. The World Bank has released staggering numbers, indicating 86 million climate change migrants by 2050.

At the same time, Africa’s population growth is surging. Its population rise will require an extraordinary increase in natural resources that is very unlikely to be met. Future rainfall projections indicate a decrease that will affect water resources, in particular the surface water that supplies the largest dams and reservoirs in North Africa. Faced with the desertification of the Sahel belt, migration flows from Libya across the Mediterranean, will likely intensify, impacting coastal nations such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Malta. These countries have suffered greatly in recent years due to European policies that are now out of step with the times, such as the criteria of the Dublin Convention—an international treaty signed in 1990 by the then twelve member states of the European Community and entered into force in 1997. Things got worse following the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi and his regime, which caused the loss of control of migratory flows from Libya, impacting Italy first and foremost.

Italy in the Front Row

For Italy, Libya is not only the most important departure point for migrants traveling to its shores, but also of enormous strategic value in terms of energy. Yet Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni has not revealed how her government will tackle migration in practical terms. Likewise, the European Council’s meeting on February 9–10 reiterated that immigration needs a common response, but little has been done to help Italy and other coastal countries deal with this emergency. In November 2022, the European Council proposed twenty rather generic measures to reduce irregular migration. These measures are along three lines: working with countries such as Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt to control migrant departures; promoting “more coordinated” search and rescue in the Mediterranean; and strengthening the implementation of the voluntary migrant redistribution mechanism introduced in June 2022, which, however, has so far failed to yield satisfactory results.

It is difficult to develop a coherent, long-term strategy with weak, delegitimized, and even overlapping governments in Libya, as happened last spring when the “outgoing” government of National Unity in Tripoli led by Abdulhamid Dbeibah was pitted against the sham government of National Stability led by former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha.

Italy, for better or for worse, collaborated in the past with the Qaddafi regime. It has continued to come to compromises with Libya in recent years through official memoranda and less-than-clear agreements. The first memorandum between the two countries was signed in 2008 by then-Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni and Qaddafi, and stipulated that Italy had to pay Libya $5 billion in aid in exchange for constant patrolling of the coast to prevent migrants from leaving. The agreement was heavily criticized for the arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and torture of migrants by Libyan authorities. In 2012, Rome renewed the agreement with Tripoli, to control Libya's southern borders and train local border police. In 2017, then-Italian interior minister Marco Minniti signed a memorandum of understanding with then Libyan prime minister Fayez al Serraj on migration management, border control, and countering human trafficking. That so-called “memorandum of shame” has drawn much criticism regarding the migrants’ safety. Renewed in 2020, it was extended again on November 2, 2022, provoking a chorus of protests among civil society groups. Yet these memoranda are not part of a long-term strategy shared with Brussels, but rather the result of ongoing emergencies.

In September 2022, European Parliament president Roberta Metsola and senior European representatives agreed to conduct negotiations to reform EU migration and asylum rules by February 2024, with the chair of the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the chair of the Asylum Contact Group, Elena Yoncheva, and the permanent representatives of Czechia, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, and France. This step reinforces the European Commission’s proposal of a new pact on migration and asylum in September 2020 to improve procedures and share responsibilities fairly among member states while managing migration flows.

Actions, unfortunately, have not lived up to words, and while Europe languishes, other nations are establishing themselves in Africa. The widespread presence of Russia’s Wagner Group is one example, but China, Turkey, and the Gulf states are also present. Libya has provided an important haven for jihadist groups such as the Islamic State that have maintained cells in the border territories and the southern province of Fezzan. Hundreds of armed militia groups are also present—some purely local, others outright criminal cartels. These groups have shared control of Libya through constant violence and extortion. In many respects, they now hold Libyan institutions hostage.

In the face of these troubling scenarios, the real issue is what can realistically be done to staunch the flow of migration and control the doors of the Maghreb and Libya as migration superhighways to Europe. To remedy this crisis, there must first be some semblance of a coherent process to create credible, implementable policy recommendations. That process is broken, principally because the right players are not at the table, and those who are, on balance, are not contributing to a workable solution.

The United States must provide strategic leadership to the entire process in close partnership with the EU and other key European countries. The wave of migration in 2015, which nearly destabilized European politics, was a harbinger of things to come. Europe’s political stability—which, if this continues, is by no means assured—is a vital interest of the United States. The EU must demand a more energetic and participatory U.S. involvement. The sources of migration are an African continental matter, not a North African one, so the African Union cannot sit this one out. It too must be at the table and a full participant, as should the Arab League, with a very different motivation from what we have seen so far.

As to the policies themselves, because their formulation process is sub-optimal from the start, they should focus on three principal goals.

First, the reasons for migration must be addressed on the African continent itself. These are complex and can seem beyond the reach of credible policy. People are leaving in droves because of a lack of economic opportunity and grinding poverty; vast and seemingly insoluble governmental corruption; local and transnational conflict fueled by strongmen, mercenaries, militias, and gangs; and, increasingly, climate change.

Second, policy formulation should propose how to manage, mitigate, or prevent illegal migration into Europe. A security solution to migration seems fraught, but it must be considered. This is a maritime and border security issue and will require a coordinated effort by the Mediterranean nations’ coast guards, navies, and border control organizations.

Third, migrants who legally arrive on the shores of Europe should be compassionately processed and supported through comprehensive European programs. These three domains must be seen as a policy whole.

Unless the policy formulation process is fixed, there can be no comprehensive approach to migration. It is a threat to African nations, and to Europe. And it is a threat to American vital interests in Africa and Europe as well.

Federica Saini Fasanotti is a military historian specializing in irregular wars. She is a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and an associate senior fellow of the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) in Milan.