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Policy Brief

EU migration Policy: Time for a Change of Course

The compounding of the negative effects of political instability, climate change and food scarcity should compel new thinking in the European Union’s migration policies.
People on the move towards the north by Mamadou Traoré via

In recent weeks, the question of migration has risen again to the top of the EU agenda. A sudden increase of departures from North Africa and arrivals on the Italian shores, accompanied by one dramatic shipwreck and multiplied drownings in the Central Mediterranean, have prompted reactions in EU capitals and a heated debate in Italy. A far-right government in Rome has also enacted or announced a series of reforms which have attracted international scrutiny and harsh criticisms from civil society and humanitarian organizations.

In light of these events, EU leaders should urgently adopt a long-term and holistic approach in addressing migration from the Middle East and Africa. Such an approach should take into account the fact that in the coming years the combined pressure of economic struggles, food scarcity, climate change, political instability (of which widespread violent extremism and terrorism are also largely a product) all call for a complete overhaul of the way we address movements of populations that will soon become epochal and massive. 

Among the immediate elements of such a reviewed strategy, the EU should work on more systemic long-term policies, including:

  • Strengthening good governance across the region and in Africa, promoting a culture of rule of law and human rights. In the long term, this will foster the creation of more stable and reliable network of local partners in North Africa and beyond.
  • Promoting development through real partnerships with southern countries, focusing on agriculture and food production primarily in North Africa and the Middle East, as this may help populations affected by severe climate change build additional resilience to adverse environmental impact.
  • Addressing droughts and water scarcity must accompany agricultural development. As the world most water scare region, MENA needs policies to improve water conservation, drought management and enhance resilience. Some organizations are already working on developing drought monitoring and early warning systems; and elevating the importance of drought mitigation, response, and preparedness.
  • Work with reliable southern partners to address common migration issues rather than policies of forced transfers and repatriation, favoring criminal groups and human trafficking.
  • Create strategies to accompany legal and orderly welcome of refugees and asylum seekers, helping them resettle in the countries of destination. As managing migration will, among other results, help mitigate the impact of climate change through enhanced development of communities (generation of remittances, transfer of knowledge and skills, development of networks) and increased resilience.
A migrants boat lands in Lampedusa harbor in Italy.

‘One of the greatest challenges to humanity in the twenty-first century will be how it deals with migration’, writes Sally Hayden in My Fourth Time, We Drowned. This award-winning book presents a harrowing narrative that recounts the struggle of African migrants trying to reach Europe: the dreadful voyages, pushbacks, deprivation and torture they endure along the way, much of it happening in Libya.

For years, the plight of migrants in North Africa and the Mediterranean has been the subject of media reports, studies, and heated debates in Europe. However, it is now becoming increasingly clear that European policies have failed to properly address the challenge. More critically, the ambiguity of the EU approach has been exposed: ostensibly invoking respect for rule of law and human rights but really operating to stop at any cost migration from North Africa. And while doing so, more or less directly supporting forced transfers to illegal detention facilities, where all sorts of crimes are perpetrated.

The Impact of Climate Change and Food Crisis on Migration

Concurrently, scholars and specialized organizations have for several years focused on climate-change induced migration, pointing at how environmental, disaster and climate change factors have been influencing human mobility. Recent developments indicate a worsening situation indeed, with climate change deemed responsible for droughts in Africa (Somalia) and the Middle East (Iraq), thus forcing large movements of people. Across the Middle East and North Africa, countries have for years been grappling with chronic water scarcity, with some countries recently imposing water rationing. 

In sum, we can assuredly anticipate—also on the basis of recent international studies and findings—that the combined effect of climate change and the food crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine will add elements of urgency which Europe may not be able to ignore or address and would strongly advise a complete review of their current migration approach.

While in Europe public debate is mainly focused on the war in Ukraine the main concerns across the Southern EU neighborhood are very different. In Tunis for instance, anxieties about the economic and food crisis are far more dominant in political debates. It is clear that food security is the greatest challenge faced by African countries because of the conflict, with Russia and Ukraine together responsible for 30 percent of the world’s exports of wheat and 50 percent of sunflower oil. And as much as half of Russia’s and Ukraine’s wheat is imported by only 15 African countries. In 2021, countries in the Horn of Africa depended on the two countries at war for almost the totality of their wheat.

Because of food scarcity and skyrocketing prices, in 2023 Africa may witness an increase of undernourished people up to 5.1 million. Overall, 350 million people across 79 countries are already acutely food insecure for the combined effects of conflicts, the pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine. Undernourishment is expected to worsen, with global food supplies projected to drop to a three-year low in 2022/2023. ‘The need is especially dire in 24 countries that FAO and the World Food Program have identified as hunger hotspots, of which 16 are in Africa’, stressed a February 2023 joint communique by WFP, IMF, World Bank, FAO and World Trade Organization. It is easy to guess how such an unprecedented hunger is going to affect movements of people in the coming months and years.

Among notable elements in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the direct link between climate change and migration was complemented by climate experts’ assessment that weather extremes aggravated by climate change are driving new patterns of human movement – especially forced displacement. In fact, the Panel states that whilst ‘through displacement and involuntary migration from extreme weather and climate events, climate change has generated and perpetuated vulnerability’, nevertheless ‘migration, when voluntary, safe and orderly, allows reduction of’ climate risks. In addition, ‘policy interventions can remove barriers and expand the alternatives for safe, orderly and regular migration that allows vulnerable people to adapt to climate change’. This confirms other analyses pointing to the fact that labor migration can strengthen communities’ resilience through generation of remittances, transfer of knowledge and skills and development of networks that can lead to the creation of businesses and work. For this to happen, migrants should be supported through safe and regular channels and helped access employment opportunities. In other words, well-managed and rights-based labor mobility and adaptation policies can offer chances to improve resilience to climate change and boost development while reducing the risk of future displacement.

Tunisia in the Eye of the Migration Storm

Migration, a constant trope in European political debate since 2015, has jumped more prominently to the fore in recent weeks due to a series of deadly incidents on the Central Mediterranean route. In the most serious one, at the end of February, a shipwreck off the Southern Italian coast of Calabria killed 88 people, including 35 minors, sparking indignation in Europe and in Italy and reigniting discussions about migration policies. Reactions were particularly virulent in Italy, where a far-right government recently issued new legislation imposing strict new rules for migrant rescue charities, drawing criticism from the UN and humanitarian organizations.

In the first three months of 2023, more than 27,000 migrants have arrived in the country by boat – an increase of 400 percent compared to the corresponding period of 2022. This trend has triggered alarmist declarations by members of the far-right government in Rome, supported by alleged estimates by intelligence agencies, warning about an ‘invasion’ of 900,000 migrants ready to leave Libya for Italian shores in the next few months. However, such forewarnings are not supported by any other international estimates, reflecting what seems to have become the norm for Italian authorities in the last 10 years.

It is a fact, however, that most 2023 arrivals to Italian shores originated from Tunisia. In 2022, the over 105,000 migrants who reached Italy departed primarily from Libya (51%), while 31 percent came from Tunisia and 15 percent from Turkey, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Much smaller numbers left from Lebanon, Algeria and Syria. Fresh figures indicate that the trend has been reversed in recent months, with a majority of people reaching Italian shores from Tunisia, instead of Libya. The issue has also become a crucial matter in bilateral relations between Rome and Tunis, with the latter trying to use it as leverage to push for more Italian and European economic support.

EU leaders have been quick to link this new trend in migration patterns with Tunisia’s political and economic crisis. The North African country has since 2020 relapsed into a much more authoritarian rule. A former law professor elected president as an independent candidate in 2019, Kais Saïed gradually assumed all power following a freezing and then dismantlement of parliament in July 2021. As part of his coup, he then replaced the 2014 constitution with a new document stripping legislators and the justice sector of all oversight powers, basically eliminating all checks and balances to the presidential rule. In recent months, following the election of a new powerless parliament (voted by less than 11 percent of the electorate), the president has unleashed a wave of arrests of prominent opposition figures, civil society and media representatives.

While the president initially enjoyed support by the public, mostly out of general frustration for the worsening economic situation, it was soon clear that Mr. Saied had no magic wand, and surely no clue about how to steer the country out of the crisis. In the past three years, Tunisia’s economy has been further hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine, which worsened pre-existing inflation and food and other supplies shortages. Tunisia has now become increasingly dependent on international financial aid, especially the IMF, for the state’s subsistence.

As an additional element fueling EU concerns, at the end of February the Tunisian president pronounced an incendiary speech at a National Security Council meeting accusing pro-democratic political parties of orchestrating a ‘criminal arrangement’ to change Tunisia’s ‘demographic composition’. ‘Urgent measures’ were necessary to crack down on illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, perpetrators of ‘violence, crimes and unacceptable practices’. Echoing racist ‘great replacement’ and other conspiracy theories, the speech drew widespread international condemnation. Among others, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, following a visit to the North African country, declared that Saied’s comments generated ‘attacks and a tidal wave of racist rhetoric’. Human rights organizations reported that hundreds of migrants were being attacked, insulted, and even evicted from homes.

Tunisia’s political, social and economic crisis has naturally risen to the top of the EU political agenda, with foreign ministers at the recent EU-27 meeting expressing their fear that a Tunisian collapse would trigger another migration crisis. In the last week of March, EU Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni paid a short visit to Tunisia to confirm the EU’s ‘commitment’ to continue ‘supporting the Tunisian people’ and generically pledging ‘additional microfinancial support’. However, apart from a mid-March resolution by the European Parliament, EU states continued to support the fight against ‘irregular migration’, short of clearly condemning the abuses, arbitrary detentions and violence against the sub-Saharan community in Tunisia. Moreover, EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s declarations ahead of the EU-27 meeting once again reflected the block’s short-term approach to the country and Europe’s neighborhood in general, as he felt compelled to invoke the ‘scare’ of new flows of migrants to push the block into action and urge support for the economy of a key partner country.

Externalizing EU Border Control

 highly sensitive political issue, the EU’s migration policy has been fueling divisions between its Northern and Southern member, as well as between the latter and the Eastern-most ones. It has also been under scrutiny for several years due to its purported lack of strategic view and makeshift nature, with experts stressing that the block continues to externalize its anti-immigration policies. This is exemplified by its approach based on delegating border control in the Central Mediterranean to the Tunisian and Libyan coast guards. In addition, EU support to North African countries has created objective obstacles to migrants, often forcing them to remain in transit countries, which are ill-equipped to address, let alone integrate, large numbers of people. 

In Libya, critics contend that EU policies are perpetuating a failed state whose institutions are dominated by criminal groups thriving largely on trafficking, first and foremost of human beings. The weakness of Libya’s institutions, and their control by armed criminal groups, has kept migrants detained and tortured in the most inhumane of conditions, often in centers directly funded with EU or other donors’ money. This has been well documented not only by courageous journalists such as Sally Hayden and Nello Scavo, in his recent book Libyagate, but more importantly by the final report by the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, requested by the UN Human Rights Council. The report, unveiled on 27 March 2023, devoted an entire section to migration, the result of dozens of interviews, establishing that ‘migrants across Libya are victims of crimes against humanity and that acts of murder, enforced disappearance, torture, enslavement, sexual violence, rape and other inhumane acts are committed in connection with their arbitrary detention’. Such crimes are thoroughly detailed in several, shocking pages of the UN mission report. 

More gravely, the report asserts that evidence provides ‘grounds to believe that the European Union and its member States, directly or indirectly, provided monetary and technical support and equipment, such as boats, to the Libyan Coast Guard and the Directorate for Combating Illegal Migration that was used in the context of interception and detention of migrants’, thus implying that the EU and its members are to be considered accomplices in such crimes against migrants. The EU has rejected such accusations, declaring that no EU funding had ever reached ‘any Libyan entity’, even though plenty of evidence indicates the EU and some members states have provided material and technical assistance to the Libyan coastguard.

Time for a Change

Evidently, the time has come for the West, and the European Union in particular, to profoundly rethink and review their migration policies. Objectively, erecting barriers across the Mediterranean with the complicity of Southern neighbors is becoming not only untenable but ineffective, due to the sheer size of peoples’ movements as well as the political volatility and economic constraints of North Africa’s regimes. In addition, years of disinformation about migration, fueled by European far-right movements and parties, have established fictions about the number of migrant arrivals, their economic impact, or their inclination for crime. So far, responses to disinformation by EU institutions and member states’ governments have chiefly focused on technical instruments and fixes, with very limited impact. Responding to such widespread disinformation narratives will need a Europe-wide effort, involving governments, EU institutions, opinion makers and civil society, aimed at primarily producing a new, realistic approach, strongly supported by convincing new narratives. The EU’s approach toward its Southern neighborhood, with consideration to the whole African continent must become central in this reshaping. 

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