In March 2017, civil war in Syria will enter its 6th year. During this period, 11 million Syrians flee from their homes where 6.6 million Syrians migrated to different parts of the country while 4.95 million of them seek refuge abroad. The majority of Syrians are migrated to neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq and more than 1 million people through different routes try to reach mostly Western European countries (UNHCR, 2017). Turkey takes the lead with hosting 2,896,633 people while Lebanon hosts 1,011,366 people, Jordan 656,170, Iraq 233,224 and Egypt 177,519 people in 2016 (UNHCR, 2017). As for the ones whose aim to continue their journey towards Europe, there are two main migration routes that they can use. First, one is Turkey-Greece route where migrants aims to reach Greece as a first step and then move towards their destination country. The second Libya-Italy route where Syrian and other economic migrants try to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea to reach Italy and continue towards their destination country.
Due to refugee agreement signed between Turkey and European Union (EU) on 19 March 2016 Turkey-Greece route is closed for migrants after Turkish coast guard forces increased their control on the borders to prevent any illegal crossing from Turkey to Greece (EU Commission, 2016). Since its initiation, the number of migrants using this route has remarkably reduced from 1,700 people per day in January 2016 to only 45 in January 2017 (UNHCR, 2017). Meaning strict controls in the Turkey-Greece route has deterred migrants from using this route. However, migration outflow from Syria still continuous by changing the routes in order to reach Europe.
Migrants’ travel to Europe for searching a better life is full of different dangers, which create many difficulties for migrants. For instance, in 2016 5,022 people died while trying to pass the Mediterranean where 4.578 of them died in Central Mediterranean sea while 441 lost their lives in Eastern Mediterranean (UNCHR, 2017). Comparing with 2015 number people who died in Central Mediterranean increased by 57 % while in Eastern Mediterranean reduced by 44% in 2016. In terms of arrivals by sea total number has decreased by 68% from 1,015,078 people to 327,800 people in 2016 while the number of arrivals through Central Mediterranean route has increased from 153,846 people to 181,436 in 2016 (UNCHR, 2017).
In 2016 death ratio of Eastern Mediterranean route was 1 in 88 people whereas the number of Central Mediterranean route consisted one death for every 47 arrivals (UNHCR, 2017). With the warming weather condition, Italy expects a significant increase in the number of arrivals. In order to reduce the number of arrivals and number of deaths Italian government has conducted meetings with Libya since more than 90% of the migrants prefers to sail the Mediterranean from Libya in order to reach Italy.
On 3 February 2017 Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj has signed an agreement regarding the reduction of migration flow where Italy will send €220 million ($236 million) to Libya in order to support the efforts of the Libyan government to curb the migration influx from Libya to Italy. According to agreement alongside with financial assistance, Italy will train Libyan coast guard forces and contribute to the building process of refugee camps in Libya (Baczynska & Macdonald, 2017). The purpose of this agreement is to strengthen the Libyan coast guard forces in order to increase their capabilities of catching the human traffickers before they could reach international sea borders because if migrants are caught in the international sea they have to be brought to Italy and reside in Italy until receiving an answer for their asylum application. However, if they caught in the Libyan territory Libyan coast guards would return them to Libya and they will be settled in refugee camps in Libya during their asylum application process (Pianigiani & Walsh, 2017).
With this attempt, Italy aims to contain the migration flow crisis in the North Africa before reaching to Italy and accept the ones whose asylum application has been approved. On this point, Italy often calls EU leaders to provide more assistance in its battle with the migration crisis and as a response to Italy’s demands on 4 February 2017 leaders of the EU has gathered in Malta summit in order to discuss the ways to reduce the migration influx from Libya to Italy (Al Jazeera.com, 2017).
Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat who holds the rotating EU presidency has suggested a Turkish style agreement with Libya on early January 2017 and stated, “unless the essence of the Turkey deal is replicated in the central Mediterranean, Europe will face a major migration crisis” (Bocchi, 2017). However, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini opposed to this suggestion by indicating that Turkey and Libya cases are completely different. In her statement, she pointed out that migrants coming from Turkey route are mostly Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans who are escaping from war while in Libyan case most of the migrants are economic migrants who are escaping from instability and repressive regimes (Rankin, 2017). Instead of conducting a Turkish style agreement with Libya, she announced that EU would provide €200 million ($210 million) financial assistance, training for Libyan coast guards and building refugee camps in Libya (EU Council, 2017). With this decision, EU has shown its support to Italy on curbing the migration flow in Central Mediterranean.
Another difference between Turkey and Libya is that latter is recently got out from a conflict between different forces after the death of the Former President of Libya Muammar Gaddafi. Although UN and many other countries recognize the unified government in Tripoli as the central government in Libya, however, they are facing numerous difficulties on running the state and having a complete control over the country (Pianigiani & Walsh, 2017). Since there are number of competing forces still influencing certain parts of the country. For instance, the military commander of Libya’s eastern government Khalifa Haftar is one of the key actors in Libya, which solidified its position in East with the help of Russia. European diplomats are meeting with Russia to discuss the future of the Libya and the role of Khalifa Haftar within the unified government. For instance, Foreign minister Angeleno Alfano has met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on 16 February 2017 in Germany (Wintour, 2017).
Looking at the scope of the initiation and the complexity of the migration problem it could be said that chances of achieving a significant success are far from reality. There will be certain improvements on the capability of Libyan coast guards to catch migrant smugglers however how influential it will be on reducing the number of arrivals to Italy is open to discussion. On this point, Italy’s Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti stated that they are not expecting a significant success within a short period of time at this stage but rather they want to start an initiation which they could govern (Pianigiani & Walsh, 2017).
In conclusion, the major concern of EU on the migration issue is that they need to work with a viable government in order to reduce the migration influx from Libya to Italy. Moreover, smuggling migrants have become a lucrative business for criminal organizations in Libya and breaking their business model requires comprehensive initiatives rather than solely increasing control over the sea. Deterrence could be useful in Libyan case like in the Turkish case but in addition to that creating certain flexibilities in asylum applications could pave the way for migrants to prefer using legal approach rather than illegal ones. Therefore, blocking routes might reduce the number arrivals from one direction. However, since the core of the problem continuous to exist many Syrians and economic migrants from poor countries will continue to arrive to EU by using different routes as they did in 2016, which changed the direction of migration flow from Turkey-Greece to Libya-Italy route.
UNHCR (2017). Syria Regional Refugee Response Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal.
Zhengizkhan Zhanaltay is a research fellow in the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Zhengizkhan completed his bachelor’s degree at international relations department of KIMEP University in 2010.