The leaders of the Arab League and the European Union (EU) will hold their first summit on 24 and 25 February in Sharm El-Sheikh to bring their positions together on a wide range of regional and international issues, ranging from the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the Middle East Peace Process, terrorism, and irregular immigration in the Mediterranean to investment in the Arab world, multilateralism and climate change.
European leaders, however, arrive at the summit with a top priority in mind, which is curbing irregular immigration across the Mediterranean Sea.
Although this has drastically fallen from the more than one million people who reached the Old Continent in 2015 to less than 140,000 in 2018, according to UN figures, irregular immigration via the Mediterranean remains a question of major concern for European states.
They seek to find common ground with their Arab neighbours around the Mediterranean that are countries of transit and origin for migrants.
Despite this common concern, EU leaders arrive in Sharm El-Sheikh in a scattered manner on how to tackle the problem. On 4 February, at the preparatory meeting for the summit held in Brussels by the foreign ministers of the participating countries, Hungary blocked the drafting of a joint declaration intended to serve as a basis for the Sharm El-Sheikh negotiations because of long-standing differences between its strict anti-immigration programme and the more liberal policies of major European countries such as Germany and France.
The exacerbation of the migration crisis over the last few years has led to deep divisions among EU members and has fostered the rise to power of right-wing nationalist and populist parties and movements in some European countries that are strongly opposed to immigration and want to close their borders to people from Africa and the Middle East.
In 2015, Hungary set up barriers at its borders with Serbia and Croatia to prevent the entry of migrants. Italy has blocked the action of humanitarian agencies operating in the Mediterranean trying to rescue distressed migrants trying to reach Europe on board makeshift boats.
A coalition of anti-immigration governments including Hungary, Italy, Poland and the majority of Eastern European countries has made it difficult to formulate a common European policy on the subject.
On 29 June, however, the European leaders reached a minimalist agreement on the problem of migration, but could not settle the substantive issues.
To satisfy Italy, which receives the bulk of migrants on its soil, EU member states have agreed to send migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to “control centres” spread throughout the EU in places to be determined and only in countries that volunteer to welcome them.
“Rapid processing” would separate economic migrants from refugees with potential asylum rights.
To spare the governments of Eastern Europe, the leaders decided that no measure on the relocation of migrants would be mandatory. They also supported measures to better control the EU’s external borders, including by providing financial assistance to countries such as Turkey and Morocco to help prevent migrants from leaving for Europe, and the creation of “processing centres” for political asylum-seekers in the southern Mediterranean countries.
The applicants would be held in these “control centres” while waiting for their requests to be processed by the EU. The Arab North African countries have rejected this proposal because it means the displacement of the problem of the reception of migrants onto their soil.
A Multisimensional Problem
Irregular migration in the Mediterranean is a multidimensional issue that is not new. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, especially in 2015, has made it urgent, but the problem is much larger than the conflict in Syria.
It also affects tens of thousands of migrants from Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and especially from Sub-Saharan Africa, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and the Sahel countries such as Niger, Senegal and Mali, and to a lesser extent the Arab countries in North Africa.
According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex, African nationals have made up almost two-thirds of migrants since 2017.
The EU has a particular interest in the Arab states of North Africa as transit and origin countries of migration to Europe since the decline of the migratory influx through the eastern Mediterranean via Turkey and the Aegean Sea, a main transit route during the 2015 crisis, following the agreement with Ankara in April 2016.
Since then, Europe has focused its efforts on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, in particular Libya, which is now the main gateway for migrants to Europe.
About 80 per cent of them have left from this country, where smuggler networks benefit from the state of civil war and the absence of a central power able to control the borders.
The European policy against irregular migration in the Mediterranean can be summed up in a series of complementary actions based on the idea of financing development programmes in the countries of origin in order to encourage potential migrants to stay in their country and of strengthening the capacity of transit countries to better monitor borders and to track down and dismantle smuggling networks.
In other words, Europe is proposing financial assistance in exchange for the commitment of the governments concerned to take concrete measures to reduce migratory flows.
Some Arab countries have taken important steps in this direction, including Libya and Egypt. The latter has intensified security controls across its shores on the Mediterranean and issued a law in November 2016 to combat irregular migration.
This law tightens penalties for the perpetrators of the crime of smuggling migrants and requires the Egyptian judicial and security authorities to cooperate with their foreign counterparts against smuggling activities through the exchange of information and assistance.
As for Libya, a memorandum of understanding was signed with Italy on 2 February 2017 under which the latter and the EU committed to finance the creation of detention camps for refugees and migrants in Libya managed by the Libyan Government of National Accord.
The agreement, signed by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni, planned to detain migrants in these camps, some of which were already in place, until they were deported or voluntarily returned to their countries.
The agreement has been denounced by human-rights organisations, including the UN High Commission for Human Rights, because of the deplorable conditions that migrants are subjected to.
However, the EU is trying to replicate this agreement with other Arab countries in the southern Mediterranean, which the latter have refused.
The Italian-Libyan memorandum is a practical translation of the European Union’s policy in the EU Migration Partnership adopted in June 2016. It seeks to secure the interests of the European Union in this regard by providing financial incentives and assistance to the countries of origin and transit of migrants.
The latest example is the granting by the European Commission last December of 148 million euros to Morocco to strengthen its border controls against irregular immigration.
However, if this European policy contains some positive aspects, such as financial and technical assistance and cooperation in combating networks of migrant smugglers, it also calls for unacceptable measures, such as the establishment of migrant detention centres in North Africa.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Arab world and irregular migration