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Europe cannot allow an ungoverned space to exist on its doorstep

Last month, 700 migrants attempting to sneak into Europe drowned when their rickety vessel capsized in the Mediterranean. This week, the European Union announced a naval initiative to crack down on migrant smugglers. It won’t work.

These tragedies are going to recur endlessly, as long as a steady fleet of unsafe boats are able to set sail from Libya. The country has become a political vacuum which no longer deserves to be identified as a sovereign state. The civil war has left no functional state; in many parts, nobody is keeping the electricity running or schools open, let alone policing the coastline to stop illegal migration or the flow of jihadists. Halting human trafficking to Europe is not in the interest of warring elites, particularly as it’s so lucrative.

Britain’s new Conservative government must confront this crisis immediately. More than 140,000 illegal migrants reached European shores in 2014 alone. The numbers for 2015 could easily be double that. Of course, many never reach the shores: nearly 2,000 migrants have already died this year; and this toll will continue to rise.

The majority of these migrants are from war-torn countries like Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. They seek a better life. Out of desperation, these migrants will risk anything to reach the promised land of Europe—and Libya’s militias are taking advantage, using them as yet another commodity to smuggle for profit.

But militia kingpins treat their human cargo with less care than heroin or petrol. This is because the migrants pay first and sail second, while other forms of illicit cargo need to arrive safely for payment to be collected. So long as Libya’s real sovereigns are myriad local militias who need vast income streams to compete with yet more powerful militias, periodical tragedy in the Mediterranean will continue.

Despite its inevitability, the human cost is unacceptable. Furthermore, the flow of boats is an international security risk, as human smuggling represents a critical gap in the ability of the UK and the EU to protect its borderlands from jihadists, militia groups, and criminal syndicates – all of which thrive in ungoverned spaces. There is a strategic dimension to the migrant boats crisis as well as a moral one.

Yet Europe’s response is predicated on the false belief that the European Union is ‘pulling’ these migrants across the Mediterranean, luring them with the false hope of an overly inviting asylum policy or the possibility of being rescued should their boat falter.

The Sun’s columnist, Katie Hopkins, who is almost as ill-informed as she is needlessly provocative, echoed this argument, suggesting ‘a huge bonfire of all the boats they have—in order to put a stop to this’. Peculiarly, the EU summit in Brussels largely adopted this approach on 23 April as it vowed to use military means to destroy smuggling boats in harbour. By this laughable logic, the United States need only burn enough pick-up trucks in Mexico to solve their illegal immigration problem. Without enough pick-up trucks in Mexico, how else would migrants reach Texas?

Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is. Human migration is an unstoppable juggernaut force.  Powerful states throughout history—from the Roman Empire to the modern United States—have been unable to stop the flow of determined, desperate people. But European politicians—including David Cameron—have fundamentally misunderstood the problem. This is not about ‘pull’ factors; it is about ‘push’ factors. Determined, desperate people who are willing to risk their lives cannot be stopped, but Europe can try to reduce the number of people that are determined to enter Europe out of desperation—and certainly can make it more difficult for them to set sail. To do so, Europe must foster stronger partners in North Africa.

North Africa was, until five years ago, a relative bastion of authoritarian semi-functional states with solid control of their territories and their coastlines. That shifted after the Arab Spring, as turmoil and instability amidst radical political change transformed the region.

Tunisia’s government has fared well, but still has porous borders.  Libya, on the other hand, is a sieve. Anyone can set sail from Libya’s coast. The migrant crisis is merely one symptom of Libya’s implosion. If a political solution were found in Libya, desperate migrants would not have another easily accessible route; Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and to a lesser extent, Tunisia, are capable of reigning in transnational smuggling operations.

The larger lesson is clear: Europe cannot afford to allow ungoverned space on its doorstep. The West cannot end the world’s human suffering, but it can help ensure that at least the scaffolding of a government exists everywhere. Bureaucrats in Brussels cannot patrol every beach and port in Libya, but they can help Libya patrol itself by aggressively facilitating the construction of a semi-functioning state.

If a new, functional Libya can rise phoenix-like from the ashes of its ongoing conflict, both sides of the Mediterranean will be more secure.  If not, the boats will keep coming no matter what documents are signed in Brussels.

Brian Klaas is a Clarendon Scholar and researcher at Oxford University. He has served as an adviser to International Crisis Group and the Carter Center. 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.

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