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Colonel Inglott: No migration crisis is ever about border control

There is a conviction that migration management begins and often ends with border control. That is an appealing and soothing idea. The fear of migration is dealt with the promise to stop migration.

That is a fantasy that can best be disproved by our guardians, the people who actually patrol Europe’s borders. And few are as experienced as Colonel Martin Cauchi Inglott.

Mr Inglott is a retired senior EU naval officer who has a strong portfolio of international military achievements in diplomatic and operational positions, including director of the Maltese Coast Guard and FRONTEX Mission Commander. He is now a freelance security and defence consultant, having already been contracted by the United Nations, international corporations and public affairs agencies.

Seeking to provoke a conversation in a subject usually dominated by noise, European Interest found out that it is possible to have an intelligent discussion about migration. Here is an insight: have you ever noticed how the political focus on migration is seasonal, as migrants and people-smugglers wait for the summer to cross the Mediterranean?

Covering the phenomenon as a “seasonal invasion” also affects the quality of the debate. Most EU governments are happy to put the subject to sleep in autumn when migration flows end. The result is that the debate is cyclical rather than progressive.

The management of migratory flows is addressed as an oversimplified problem of border control. Those who guard our borders will tell you with some authority: this is not about border control.

European Interest: You have experience in border control operations and migration policy, and consequently appreciate the intricacies of rescue operations and the politics around disembarkation: In your opinion, given current instabilities in Libya, and the appearance of deep corruption on the ground, do you feel returning asylum seekers to Libya is a viable option?

Colonel Inglott: Whilst I appreciate that many Europeans support the tough stance being taken by southern European countries vis-a-vis migration out of Libya, anyone with a conscience and foresight must ask what the consequences for those migrants returned to Libya? Can Europe really expect the Libyan government to offer humane facilities for the thousands of migrants now stranded in Libya? How will Europe react once atrocities in Libya come to light, or pictures of the next capsized boat hit the press?

Whilst I feel that stemming the flow of economic migrants out of Libya should be the ultimate objective, the sudden block of the migration flow is a short-sighted approach as one cannot sweep humanitarian considerations under the carpet. That is because refugees eligible for international protection are amongst those migrants., And Libya is not a stable country and has yet to sign the Geneva Convention.

But since we seem to be opting for the ‘blocking’ option, let’s consider two unquestionable ramifications:

  1. Migrants warranting international protection and asylum in Libya are now sandwiched between a rock and a hard place, probably having to endure more inhumane treatment and arduous working conditions, possibly even slavery.
  2. Tensions in Libyan reception centres are probably escalating to uncontrollable levels, and this will lead to smugglers being allowed to organise outbound waves of migrants to Europe, as we have seen in recent days.

So, in my opinion, returning asylum seekers to Libya is, for now, not a viable option. However, a solution needs to be negotiated with Libya before the next migration season begins.

Migration flows via Libya could be pushed towards Greece and Spain. On an operational level, can the EU do anything more substantial than divert the final destination of migrants?

Unless Europe sorts out its migration policy, smugglers will continue to find more innovative ways of ‘shipping’ migrants to Europe, through Libya or otherwise, with consequences for all, but first and foremost migrants who risk their lives. Calamities at seas will cause public outcry from liberal societies in Europe to which governments will undoubtedly subdue (Lampedusa 2013), and far-right movements will then counter, and so the cycle continues to repeat itself until Europe gets its act together … or fails.

In my opinion, the only way out of this quagmire is for the EU and Libya to devise comprehensive migration policies in tandem. The EU currently appears to be taking a somewhat disjointed approach as its conglomerate of semi-independent institutions and agencies are being guided by 28 Member States, each having their egoistic political interests at heart. But the EU certainly has the toolbox to influence migration policy in Libya, perhaps leveraging on the experience of Somalia. The model adopted in Somalia is one through which the EU combined its development, diplomatic and security instruments to provide comprehensive and synchronised solutions under the lead of an EU Special Representative – one lead!

There is little doubt there is organised crime involvement in the management of migration flows from Libya. Migration is a massive business for mostly Italian criminal networks. However, rescue operations by NGO ships take place in international waters. Do you see any substance in the accusations of the Italian government of collusion with criminal networks?

Like many others, I have mixed feelings about NGOs rendering humanitarian assistance to migrants in Africa. On the one hand, there is the indisputable fact that NGO vessels are doing an outstanding job in saving lives, bringing refugees which warrant protection to Europe. But the logical thing for any NGO vessel to do is to lay off Libyan territorial seas (24 miles offshore for migration) and switch on its transponder (Automatic Identification System), making the vessel’s location visible on smugglers smartphones. That sadly allows smugglers to plan for a vessel that is seaworthy for 24 miles, rather than something strong enough to cross the Mediterranean., That is probably why we frequently see migrant cadavers being washed up on Libyan shores.

Whilst I have not witnessed any collusion between NGOs and criminal networks, I do offer several other questions related to NGO vessels: Apart from saving numerous lives, are NGO vessels potentially luring more sub-Saharan African migrants to Europe? And if indeed the case, are they risking migrants’ lives in the process?  We are, after all, talking about migrants crossing the Sahara Desert; then working in inhumane conditions in Libya, or even possibly becoming enslaved; and then they cross the Mediterranean Sea. I do not have an answer to all these questions but am sure FRONTEX and the European Asylum Support Office have reports of interviews with migrants upon which Member States build their migration policies.

If you had to prioritise how to manage this migration flow, would you invest in border control or screening capacity?

As previously stated, I feel that the only way to curb migration through Libya is to offer ambitious and comprehensive solutions which deliver concurrent win-win-win outcomes:

  1. For persons eligible for international protection as well as economic migrants, who should avoid the perilous Mediterranean crossing.
  2. For Libya that should be supported to improve its control over its land and sea borders; and
  3. For Europe that should not have to face an annual deluge of migrants, straining rescue and immigration services.

I contend that the EU is able to face this challenge in a consolidated manner, but the solution cannot be “simply” blocking migration on the border or controlling migration through rigorous screening. I contend that there should be middle of the road solutions where those who warrant international protection are welcomed into Europe, whilst economic migrants are dissuaded from voyaging to Europe. Those already in Libya should be repatriated following amicable negotiations until the EU sets up a long-term plan for migration from sub-Saharan Africa.

On an operational level, to what extent is Malta dependent on cooperation with Italy for the management of migration flows.

As I retired from public service in 2015, I no longer have access to official information. But, from my interpretation of current events, I can only imagine that there is minimal cooperation between Italy and Malta on migration on the political front. This because standoffs appear to be the order of the day when migrants vessels are beyond the reach of the Libyan Coast Guard.

While I appreciate that both Italy and Malta are abiding by their interpretation of international law, the Maltese Government rejected the 2004 amendments to Search and Rescue Convention because it was clearly not in Malta’s interest to do so. This implies that Malta abides by the principle that migrants should be disembarked in the closest safe haven, which in my opinion, is the logical course of action for any rescue case. Nevertheless, though Malta and Italy have had migration issues pre-2013, relations between both militaries and coast guards has always been exemplary, as was also the case at the diplomatic level. I cannot imagine that the situation is any different nowadays as both countries are mature EU Member States.

Does the current level of migration flow from North Africa justify the hyped political discourse? It appears that current levels of immigration are nowhere near historic highs.

Europe remains faced with the same dilemma we saw almost two decades ago when I had already then interpreted border control as a means to process the flow of migrants into Europe, in a safe and organised manner, as repatriation remains challenging. This, to my mind, implies that Europe is struggling to cope with the migration phenomena, and the issue is not one of numbers, which fluctuates on a yearly basis, but one of policy, as distribution within the EU, remains unregulated and repatriation very limited. Until these aspects have been rectified, we won’t gain public confidence, faith in the Brussels institutions will diminish, and the far right will continue to gain the upper hand. Effective repatriation and distribution is the only solution!

More border guards will not offer any deterrence as their prime roles are now that of rescuers or processing agents who register arrivals through finger-printing. In contrast, human traffickers will continue to profit from the desperation of those aspiring to reach mainland Europe, finding new maritime routes. Europe needs to devise and implement bolder and more united strategies, resorting to out of the box solutions and a stronger foreign policy vision. If not, we will be simply attempting to continue plugging holes in a severely rusted ship with no end in sight … and climate change is not helping.

Is Dublin III a fair and viable arrangement? If not, why not, and why has the situation not been remedied since 2003? Are southern countries of entry able to manage the migration flow?

For those unaware, the EU’s Dublin Convention apply the rule that the country which either first hears asylum seekers’ claims, or fingerprints migrants upon entry into the EU, should be the country where a person receives asylum, if warranted.

That same country is then responsible for the migrant until the latter becomes an official refugee or is deported, and the refugee is thereafter obliged to remain therein. Now Dublin II came into force in 2003, when the Greek-Turkey border was sealed by minefields on the land side, and rigorous, push back, border control operations were conducted at sea; Col. Gaddafi was still in power, so Italy probably felt that the migration dribble out of Libya could be controlled; Malta, though beginning to feel the pinch, had the EU acquis communitaire done and dusted, and was excited about joining the EU; and my interpretation is that Spain, back then, welcomed migration to plug its manpower shortage.

Though the situation since 2003 has changed dramatically, and migration has now become the hot potato, northern and central EU countries feel little to no sympathy with their southern partners, exploiting the Dublin Convention to their advantage. I contend that progress on modifying Dublin to reflect the principle of solidarity (Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union) has yet to reach fruition because the agenda in Brussels is dominated by “current affairs” issues, such as Brexit. And since migration ebbs and flows seasonally,   the subject does not maintain the political momentum required. Voyages across the Mediterranean begin in May and peak in July; Brussels shuts down in August for vacations; by September migrant arrivals drop and, subsequently, the political agenda moves on., This seasonal routine unfolds every year since 2002. Since southern Member States have no choice but to continue living with the implications of Dublin II while northern and eastern Europe resist burden sharing.

Southern countries of entry could continue to manage migration flows, but the question is whether it is politically safe for the EU to allow mounting pressures to continue. We are witnessing the increase of far-right movements and radicalisation throughout Europe, but particularly frontier states. As politics have escalated to policies, there is now a threat to veto other EU policy areas, including EU funding, until policy consensus on migration management is reached. Do we want this to happen?

Given the current state of political discourse in the EU and the challenges faced by Mediterranean states, do you think it is appropriate for FRONTEX to be based in a Visegrad member state?

The decision where to host an EU agency is rarely one based on common sense but rather political lobbying where trade-offs are made, with the aspiration of balancing agencies around Europe equitably. Personally speaking, I find it irrelevant where Europe’s Border and Coast Guard Agency is based, but there is a big BUT!

Having a military background, I find it crucial that the leadership of operations should be decentralised to the field where the operational commanders are in touch with reality. This is why the EU’s military strategic headquarters (5 + 1) are hosted in European capitals, but the Force Headquarters, which direct operations, are as far forward as possible, and in the case of EU NAVFOR Atalanta and Sophia actually at sea.

There was a weak attempt for FRONTEX to follow this example in 2010, by establishing an operational headquarters in the south, but the result was a very feeble liaison office in Greece. My take is that FRONTEX always wanted to retain the policy arm in Poland but objected to delegating operational arms to sub-headquarters in Europe’s periphery, and now the agency continues to micromanage frontier business as a whole from Warsaw, rather than outsource its direction to more powerful operational commanders in touch with reality at the frontiers.

Should EU member states that played a special role in the Libyan campaign play a special role in the management of ensuing migration flows?

I recall witnessing an intense EU – NATO tug-of-war in 2011, to lead and conduct the Libyan campaign, NATO winning because it possessed more robust fighting capabilities, much of which belonged to the United States. But in hindsight, I feel that many would argue that it would have been far better had the EU led the campaign because NATO does not have the know-how, capabilities, or resources to conduct post-conflict resolution and state-building. Had the EU been in the lead, there would have been a more long-term perspective on peace-building. Instead, Libya was abandoned.

Many migrants rescued at sea will throw away travelling documents (passports) or use fake documents, both claim they are minors and substantiate asylum applications. In this scheme, is it realistic to expedite asylum applications given the need for biometric tests and in-depth interviews? Given the EU’s international obligations, can such processes take place in a quality-assured manner in Libya or offshore Libya?

The way I see it, Libya should not be seen as the problem, but part of the solution. And let’s not forget that it is because Europe is luring migrants that Libya is challenged. As I have already divulged, Libya and the EU must be partners. This is not an “us and them” matter. I am of the firm opinion that EU Asylum Processing Centers must be established in Libyan territory, on terra ferma or afloat. How to implement this concept is the challenge at hand. But, honestly, I feel that there are possible solutions if the EU puts serious effort under integrated command and unified political coordination. One person must lead the charge, as was and is the case in Somalia.

Originally Published with European Interest: