Playing Politics with Migrants on Both Sides of the Mediterranean

Originally published in the Financial Times on 8 June 2015.

Playing Politics with Migrants on both sides of the Mediterranean

Over the last eighteen months, hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants have paid smugglers to set sail from Libya on barely seaworthy boats headed northward towards Europe.

Fleeing war-torn and misgoverned hellholes across the globe, these poor souls are treated worse than contraband.  Drugs need to arrive intact for the smugglers to earn a profit; the weary migrants are lucrative whether they live or die, since they pay in advance.  Unsurprisingly, more than 2,000 migrants have already drowned this year in the Mediterranean.

Prospective migrants are able to arrive in and set sail from Libya because it lacks functioning state structures and is completely unable to police its borders. Two rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli duel for legitimacy. Neither has effective control of any territory. Libya has become an ungoverned space.

Consequently, Libya’s 1500 mile coast line is a sieve. Migrants — and anything else (jihadists and drugs come to mind) — will continue leaking toward Europe until Libya becomes at least a semi-functioning state again. 

In the eyes of much of the world, the repeated drowning of migrants hoping to build a better life across the Mediterranean— and risking everything to do so — is a needless tragedy and a blight on our collective consciousness.  


But for politicians—in Libya and in Europe— migrants are as politically lucrative as they are profitable for smugglers.  Policymakers in Brussels, Tripoli, and Tobruk are all playing politics with these avoidable deaths, turning preventable tragedies into a political football in the most cynical way imaginable. And as a result of this shameless political opportunism, their  ‘solutions’ will only empower extremist groups in both Libya and Europe. 

When a particularly grisly drowning happened in April, Europe was finally compelled to act. Ministers called a summit. Unfortunately, their proposals have mistaken the symptom for the disease. Libya’s collapse is the disease; the migrants are just a symptom.

Their plans aim to stop the flow of migrant boats by targeting the boats and boosting military patrols in the sea.  It is doomed to fail. If one smuggler’s boat were successfully attacked in a Libyan harbor, all smugglers would soon chain helpless migrants to their boats to serve as human shields and prevent further sinkings. Furthermore, a Western military intervention against Libya will play into the hands of ISIS and add fuel to the ongoing civil war.

This misguided, polarizing policy will however achieve the only goal it was created for: appeasing the extremist xenophobic right-wing groups in each EU member state by making a muscular, militaristic showing of strength against some of the weakest people on the planet.  Some extremist members of UKIP in Britain or the Front Nationale in France may be heartened by images of guns drawn on starving, malnourished women and children cowering in rickety migrant boats. But such efforts will make Europe look morally weak while ensuring strategic blowback and being a boon for jihadi and neo-fascist recruitment. Yet, the cynical mainstream politicians will have achieved their aim: avoiding looking weak on immigration and hence losing votes to rightwing populists.

Europeans are not the only ones who are playing politics with the steady flow of migrants. In Libya, the UN is trying to mediate a multipolar civil war by negotiating a political solution between the Tripoli and Tobruk administrations.  The Tobruk faction is internationally recognized, owing to its victory in flawed elections in June 2014. Moreover, given the Tripoli faction’s Islamist leanings — and the West’s ongoing (but misguided) policy of blindly backing the anti-Islamist horse while meddling in the internal affairs of many Arab nations —   most European politicians have a staunch bias toward the Tobruk-based administration.  Politicians in Libya are mirroring the behavior of their European counterparts, using the deaths and misery in the Mediterranean to further their own positions.  In so doing, they are perversely taking a page from the playbook of Muammar Qaddafi, who let migrants sail in order to extort concessions from Europe. When he got what he wanted, the flow of migrants miraculously seemed to dry up.

The Tobruk faction recently signaled a similar strategy to Europe, in diplomatic communications that have not yet been reported in the Western press.  In discussing the issue of migrants, Nuri Beit al-Mal, the Tobruk prime minister’s personal adviser for foreign affairs, recently announced: “I have sent a proposal to the European Union to meet and discuss what part the Libyan Government can play in support of any plans and look forward to a positive engagement.”  This is a signal that the Tobruk faction would be willing to stem the flow of migrants — in exchange for the ‘right’ diplomatic concessions from Europe, especially the lifting of the UN-backed arms embargo. Rather than diplomatic sticks, the European response has been carrots: high-level meetings and a scheme of coastguard training could be in the offing.

Similarly, on the Tripoli side – the one from which the majority of the migrants attempt to transit — the political and militia leaders turn a blind eye to smuggling, hoping that European politicians will grant them precious international recognition in exchange for cracking down on the smugglers.

But unlike Qaddafi, the dueling administrations in Tobruk and Tripoli cannot deliver on what they are promising; they cannot stop the flow of migrants because they don’t actually control their territories.  Instead, each faction is bound to over-promise and under-deliver as they hope to receive arms, training packages, and diplomatic support in the ultimate battle over which faction will dominate the eventual national unity government when the ongoing crisis finally ends.

Cynical as this Libyan wrangling is, it is little different from political jockeying in Europe.  The migrant issue is simply so eye-catching in the media and so emotional with electorates that it lends itself to being manipulated by politicians who attempt to frame the narrative to their advantage.

During this political showdown, smugglers — including groups that are closely linked to ISIS — are cashing in on the unintended consequences of their gamesmanship.  Two weeks ago, it was revealed that one of the terrorists involved in masterminding the deadly Bardo attack on Western tourists in Tunisia had arrived in Italy by way of a migrant boat.  Just last week, ISIS took the most strategically important airfield outside of Sirte. So while Europe is distracted by the migrants, ISIS is literally on the march in Libya. Only a functioning national unity government can stop their progress.

The steady stream of migrants from the anarchic Libyan coast toward European shores will not stop until the European Union works with the United Nations, the United States, and regional powers -- Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt -- to cobble together a new, credible, unified diplomatic front that puts pressure on both Tobruk and Tripoli to forge consensus, and sign and implement a power-sharing agreement. 

Existing efforts have been fruitless because they appeal to the Western-favored Tobruk faction but are squarely rejected by the Tripoli faction.  Neither side should be given the imprimateur of international legitimacy until they have proven that they can compromise and govern by consensus rather than with divisive politics fueled and funded by warlords, jihadists, and smugglers.  The loss of legitimacy — and all the perks that come with it in economic, diplomatic, and political terms —should be sufficiently costly to be a catalyst for peace.

Hard-hitting, serious diplomacy is the way to rebuild a sovereign, functional Libya. Until that happens, all the torching of boats and military patrols in the world won’t secure Europe’s borders, stop migrants from drowning, or allow Libya to exorcise its demons of ISIS, smugglers, and warlords. 

Groucho Marx famously quipped that “politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”  He would be proud that politicians in Brussels, Tobruk, and Tripoli are applying his definition as they profit politically from a strategic, moral, and humanitarian quagmire in the Mediterranean.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at the University of Oxford, focusing on democratic transitions and political violence. 

Jason Pack is a Researcher of Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University and President of He specialises in the Libyan ports sector in his capacity as an affiliated North Africa Analyst at Risk Intelligence.