While millions in the world are celebrating the popular uprisings in North Africa, Europe is watching with skepticism and fear. The fall of the African dictators will deprive Europe of valuable allies in the fight against irregular migration. The political vacuum and the social and economic instability that follows will create a new wave of desperate migrants daring the high seas to reach the coats of Europe. This will deepen the immigration crisis Europe has been trying hard to manage in recent years. Europe is responding with an increased use of force. A new humanitarian crisis is looming.
Devastated by war and poverty, thousands of Sub-Saharan Africans have been leaving home on a torturous and long journey north every year. Arriving in Morocco, Tunisia, or Libya, they recuperate from the journey fatigue, pay human smugglers, and climb aboard flimsy boats heading to Italy or Spain. Many fall victim to high waves and deadly storms. The survivors join the army of asylum seekers, or undocumented workers in big cities across the continent.
Removing and returning the migrants to their places of origin or the last country they left before entering Europe has proven impractical. As a result, preventing the Africans from reaching Europe has become a policy priority in recent years. To block their arrival, European states have been signing bilateral agreements with North African dictators, recruiting them to guard the EU borders in return for financial assistance.
In a bilateral agreement with Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, Italy pledged financial support in exchange for help in preventing African transit immigrants and Tunisians from leaving for Europe. Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali’s fall ended the agreement. Border control collapsed in Tunisia and 5000 Tunisians arrived in the Italian port of Lampedusa. Although in much smaller numbers, Egyptians have been leaving their homes and heading to Italy. Egypt remains politically and economically unstable. The continuation of the situation will only increase the number of Egyptians opting for survival in Europe.
In a 2003 agreement between Spain and Morocco, Moroccan authorities pledged full cooperation in migration control in return for $390 million in aid. Two years later in September 2005, Moroccan soldiers and Spanish guards fired at hundreds of Africans trying to enter the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Gun shots killed 11 migrants and injured many more. The North African protest movement has already reached the streets of Morocco. Here too, the future of the bilateral pact to stop African migration is at jeopardy.
The most notable of the bilateral agreements with North African dictators was the "Friendship Pact" signed between Italy and Libya on August 30th, 2008. The two countries pledged increase cooperation in "fighting terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, and illegal immigration." Muammar Gaddafi agreed to keep African migrants from leaving its frontiers for Italy, and readmit to Libya those intercepted in international waters. The price tag for this service was $5 billion Italian investment, and six patrol boats to police the waterways between Africa and Europe.
On May 6, 2009, the Italian coastguard and naval fleet interdicted a migrant boat in high seas and forcefully returned the passengers to Libya. Italy’s interior minister Roberto Maroni hailed the act an "historic day" in the fight against illegal immigration. Among the passengers were vulnerable women and children, those in need of medical assistance, and those with legitimate cause for asylum and international protection. The Human Rights Watch has reported widespread abuse, physical violence, torture of returned migrants in Libya. In some cases, the Libyan authorities sold the Africans to human smugglers who kept them in private jails and released them after receiving money from their families.
The political turmoil in North Africa is also threatening the future of the "Friendship Pact." Mummar Qaddafi has threatened his unilateral cancellation of the agreement if the European governments did not stop criticizing his violent suppression of the Libyan protesters. Qaddafi’s armed forces killed hundreds of protesters in recent days. Meanwhile, the anti-government protests are raging in different parts of Libya. The future of the Libyan dictator remains unclear.
On February 15th, the Italian Ministry of Interior sent a formal request for help to Frontex, the European Union’s border security agency. On February 20th, Frontex launched the Joint Operation Hermes 2011 with the deployment of additional aerial and maritime assets from Italy and Malta to combat the flow of illegal immigrants from North Africa.
Muammar Gaddafi may succeed in crushing the uprising by the use of extreme force. The dictator’s fall will be, however, an irrevocable blow to Europe’s current migration policy. The loss of Europe’s hired gun in the fight against irregular migration will lead to a more open confrontation between the EU armed guards and the African migrants in high seas. How far will Europe go to stop the African from reaching its frontiers?
Behzad Yaghmaian is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West and the forthcoming The Greatest Migration: a People’s Story of China’s March to Power. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.