Above: Rafts of migrants and refugees float in the Mediterranean Sea. The years-long crisis has sown deep disagreement among European leaders and populations on how best to mitigate the crisis during one of the largest eras of human movement in history. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy and is public domain)
By: Geoff Moore
Last week as G20 leaders met in Hamburg, the Libyan coast guard was rescuing migrants from their sinking boat in the Mediterranean. According to UNHCR, 85,000 people have already made the journey to Italy this year, most of them departing from Libya. This is part of what the UN Refugee Agency calls “mixed migration flows,” an umbrella term describing a range of reasons why people leave their home countries. The UN data show that more than 2,000 people have died in the Mediterranean this year and that 15 percent of the people attempting the trip are children, most of them traveling without an adult.
When the richest countries in the world met to shape “an interconnected world,” the migrant crisis was pushing Italy to capacity and the limit of its patience. In late June, as 10,000 migrants arrived in a single week, Italy threatened to block boats carrying migrants from entering Italian ports. Private charities use boats to help migrants reach Italy, but some believe these groups are colluding with smugglers and encouraging more people to make the journey. On July 2nd, Italy shifted its tone and asked other European countries to take a share of the migrants. Two days later, the EU announced a plan to give money to Italy and the Libyan coast guard and decided to establish a “code of conduct” for the charities. That this all occurred between two major international summits exposes a policy breakdown at the highest levels.
At the end of May, leaders of the G7 countries arrived in Taormina, Sicily to work towards consensus on global challenges. Yet, as Patrick Wintour wrote in The Guardian, Taormina was chosen “because Sicily is 300 miles from the Libyan coast.” The European Union has been struggling with the refugee crisis for over two years and still lacks a coherent migration policy. Amnesty International, which described the G20’s approach to the refugee crisis as “willful negligence,” released a new report this month noting that although the European Council agreed to a Declaration on the Libya-Italy route back in February, EU coordination with the recognized Libyan government is limited by the Libyan coast guard’s lack of both capacity and accountability. The Declaration itself emphasizes that “capacity building is key for [Libyan] authorities to acquire control over the land and sea borders and to combat transit and smuggling activities.” Yet, as recently as April, the UN’s Special Representative in Libya warned that the divided North African country was in danger of falling back into conflict.
One of the most striking aspects of the current migration crisis is that while most people seem to agree on the problems, few have taken concrete action. The G7 Leaders Communiqué and the G20 Leaders Declaration both emphasize the need for “an emergency approach and a long-term one,” to address migration. It is revealing that two years after the height of the refugee crisis, G20 leaders are still offering platitudes about an emergency approach rather than carrying one out. Both the G7 and G20 also employ near-identical language when it comes to recognizing the sovereign right of states to determine border policies that are in their own national interest. This makes it easy for countries such as Hungary and Austria to refuse assistance, while simultaneously creating the appearance of broader consensus.
In September 2016, the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to adopt the Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. While it was encouraging to see consensus, the Declaration itself was disappointing to some as “the text was limited to a recommitment by states to respect the rights of refugees and migrants already enshrined in international law.” The G20 Leaders Declaration stated that the group looks “forward to the outcome of the UN process towards Global Compacts on Refugees and for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration,” but these will not materialize until after UNHCR prepares a draft in 2018. Nearly a year after the UN vote, refugee flows to Europe have subsided (due in part to a deal between the EU and Turkey), but major summits of world leaders have failed to address the core causes of migration.
Although the G20 declared it would “seek to address the root causes of displacement,” it has already failed. A series of major summits have come and gone and the problem of migration persists. Until the European Union and groups such as the G20 or G7 commit to real and immediate policy changes, ad hoc deal-making will remain the norm. Italy, Greece, and other Southern European countries will be forced to host migrants and refugees until they reach capacity, or simply hope countries like Germany and Sweden will once again lend a hand. It is not Italy which suffers most from the lack of policy-making, but the people who endure smuggling and risk their lives to reach Europe. While world leaders wait around for the next summit, people will continue to die crossing the Mediterranean.
Geoff Moore is a graduate of the MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King’s College London where he focused on Middle Eastern politics and transitional justice. He has interned for the Kurdistan Regional Government in their London office and more recently worked on UN Advocacy for International Crisis Group in New York. He received his bachelor’s from Boise State University where he studied International Business and French.