The European Commission’s action plan on the Central Mediterranean, proposed on November 21, 2022 and endorsed by home affairs ministers a few days later, is another missed opportunity for the European Union to reset its myopic and harmful policies on this crucial migration route. The plan recycles the same repressive and ineffective focus on stopping people from entering Europe by increasing funding and support to often abusive governments in North Africa.
The plan doubles down on strengthening Libya’s capacity to police its borders. Support for the Libyan Coast Guard already facilitates interceptions of migrants at sea and their return to Libya where they face arbitrary detention and horrific abuses. The EU cynically justifies this support as part of the fight against smugglers and traffickers, despite knowing that the United Nations has pointed to evidence of collusion between the Libyan Coast Guard and traffickers and smugglers “attempting to profit from this system.”
The new plan ignores recommendations to re-introduce state-led, proactive search and rescue operations under the auspices of the EU and to establish a clear mechanism for predictable disembarkation in a place of safety of people rescued in the Central Mediterranean. The plan also fails to incorporate a process for relocation of people to other EU countries, to share responsibility and alleviate the pressure on the country of disembarkation.
Instead of dealing with EU member states’ refusals to undertake and coordinate the rescue of migrant boats in distress and to allocate safe places of safety to ships operated by nongovernmental rescue groups, the European Commission continues to constrain these organizations’ life-saving work at sea, referring to an alleged “need for a specific framework and guidelines for vessels.”
As rescue groups state repeatedly, international maritime law already establishes a legal framework for rescue at sea, which civilian rescue ships already respect. It is high time EU governments do the same.
Instead of recycling old approaches that failed to protect people and instead perpetuated suffering, the European Commission should scrap policies enabling human rights abuses and focus on strengthening the EU asylum and reception system, expanding the solidarity mechanism for allocating state responsibility, and establishing meaningful safe and legal pathways for migration.