Think EU-MED

Friday, November 5, 2010

Libya and the EU - The new partnership against illegal immigration

Two years after the start of negotiations on the EU-Libya Framework Agreement the European Commission and Libya agreed on a common migration agreement for the period 2011- 2013. The agreement was signed by the Commissioner for Home Affairs and the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy together with the representatives of the Libyan government during a meeting from 4-6 October in Tripoli. Both sides agreed on more dialogue and financial assistance to support Libyan reforms in the field of migration and asylum. For the next three years the EU will allocate €50 million for projects aimed to adopt new legislation on refugee protection, to fight against smuggling and trafficking in human beings, to upgrade the border surveillance systems and not least better control the immigration flows to the European continent.

Libya has become a mayor transit country for sub-saharian migrants heading north to Europe, especially to Malta and Italy. Many migrants try to cross the country in order to reach to European continent or to find work in Libya. Many are asylum seekers coming from African conflict zones such as Somalia, Eritrea, Darfur and western Africa. Following the adoption of the ‘Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation’ between Italy and the authoritarian administration of Muammar Gaddafi in May 2009 fewer migrant boats crossed the Mediterranean. In 2009 the number of irregular people caught heading to Italy fell from 32,052 to 7,300 in 2008. The practice of intercepting boat people trying to reach Southern Europe on small ships by border guards in the central Mediterranean and returning them back to Libya has raised concern and criticism by Human Rights Groups. They condemn the current push-back practice on the high seas and accuse Libya of human rights violations, arrests in migrant detention centres, and deportations of the refugees.

No blank check to Libya

Despite of criticism at both domestic and international level against the vague and worrying friendship agreement, the Libyan leader was not discouraged to propose publicly that the EU should pay the North African country €5 billion a year to stop clandestine immigration to Europe or in his words “to prevent Europe from turning black”.

Even if the EU have never seriously considered Gaddafi’s offer the very fact that a cooperation deal with the authoritarian regime is concluded is a worrying point. Within the non-binding agreement, Libya is set to receive money and assistance from EU experts. Although, as the Commission states, the money will not be handed over to the Libyan government but spend directly into the projects under the supervision of the Commission.

Libya is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or 1967 Protocol for the treatment of refugees according to human rights. The state has no appropriate asylum system and does not even recognize the term “asylum seeker”. In June 2010 the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was closed in Tripoli. The UN's refugee agency will not reopen its department in Tripoli unless Libya recognizes international asylum protections standards and the adoption of the Geneva convention. It remains to be seen if the UNHCR will return after the EU’s intention to help building up an asylum system based on international standards and to raise standards in the detention centres.

A starting point for reinforced bilateral relations

For a long time already, the EU is pushing for a dialogue with Libya to improve the cooperation. The deal with Libya on various migration aspects is an important step in the relations between the EU and the North-African country. The bilateral relations between the EU and Libya have over the past three years developed constantly. The Commission has also decided to open an EU-Office in Tripoli, under the authority of the EU Delegation in Tunis, which should become operational in early 2011. The ambitious cooperation agenda on migration could be a starting point for other areas of cooperation. Migration is one of the key areas for Europe next to for instance energy, trade, and security. However, the negotiations about an EU-Libya Framework Agreement, that would cover several aspects of mutual interest such as free trade area issues and cooperation in energy, transport, migration, JHA, environment, maritime policy and education, have been pending since the end of 2008. The Framework Agreement would be the basis for further political dialog and cooperation in foreign policy and security issues. Soon there is another chance for discussion when the next negotiation round takes place in the Libyan capital set for end of November.