This week, a number of newspapers once again published stories that “up to 600,000 people are estimated to be waiting in Libya” to cross the Mediterranean to enter Europe. There is no question that the number of asylum seekers – many from Syria – who are crossing into Europe by boat through a variety of routes has increased dramatically. Italy, for example, estimates they have already received 50,000 asylum seekers since the start of the year. And as the numbers have increased, so too have deaths at sea. The Migrant Files, an on-line database, has found that more than 23,000 migrants have died en route to Europe since 2000.
But we should always be concerned about large figures of would-be migrants being quoted. With the end of the Cold War, the British Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, claimed that 7 million Soviet citizens would want to work in the west, and that “many might seek to use the asylum route and, indeed, it would be naïve to think otherwise.” That flow, needless to say, never happened.
There are similar questions around this figure of 600,000. The first issue is who made the claim. It was first made by Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano in April, though widely reported since as being from unnamed government officials, such as “European authorities” in the Guardian’s story. Further, Alfano’s claim was significantly more hedged. He stated: “According to our information between 300,000 and 600,000 people are on the other side of the Mediterranean on the North African coastline, waiting to cross sooner or later.” But, beyond his claim, there is little evidence to support it. Apart from the fact this suggests huge numbers of asylum seekers are patiently waiting in a country that is on the brink of a renewed civil war, there is simply no evidence this population exists. UNHCR’s current estimates have 30,000 refugees and 60,000 IDPs in Libya – a sixth of this figure.
Further, it is very much in Italy’s interest to play up these claims. The government has been seeking to get an expanded EU response by arguing that migration across the Mediterranean is a European issue, not just an Italian one. Alfano has noted that “the Mediterranean is not an Italian border but a European border” while Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini has stated “we must collaborate with our European partners to manage the flow of people crossing the Mediterranean.”
This figure is also now being used as a pretext to reconsider processing centres outside of Europe to deal with asylum seekers. Flavio De Gaicomo from the International of Organization, for example, has suggested “maybe we could establish migrant centres in their own countries to give them the possibility to find legal ways of entering Europe. This kind of solution must be taken into account. They should be able to come to Europe without dying at sea.” The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s European director, Vincent Cochetel, has stated that UNHCR “We would not be totally against external processing if certain safeguards were in place: the right to appeal, fair process, the right to remain while appeals take place.”
But beyond the healthy scepticism this figure should be examined with, there is the question about why migration has been growing so significantly across the Mediterranean. The answer here is that there are few other routes for them. As Human Right Watch has noted, Greece, which had been the main country of entry into the EU, has used fences to effectively close its land border with Turkey. Both Greece as well as Bulgaria have engaged in summary returns of asylum seekers to Europe. And there are suggestions that Italian authorities have been encouraging on-migration by deliberately not processing individual migrants, thereby limiting the chances other European countries will return them to Italy. Knowing that there is less chance they will be returned may be encouraging asylum seekers to take to the sea to travel to Italy.
Thus, there is little evidence behind this figure, even though it is being widely reported and used as a means to drive a very particular policy agenda. There is no question that right now, Italy is facing a large number of asylum seekers. But the response should be to consider multilateral options within European Union to share this population and ensure that the rights of refugees under international and European law are respected.
Dr. Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies and International Relations at the University of Queensland and Senior Researcher and Program Director, Doctrine, Concepts, and Inter-Agency Cooperation at the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He tweets @p_orchard.