07/2011: William Lacy Swing


William Lacy Swing
Director General of the International
Organization for Migration (IOM)


“New migration dynamics resulting from the North Africa uprisings”


Ü Eurasylum: According to IOM’s figures, as of 23 May 2011, 856,019 migrants had fled violence in Libya, including almost 275,000 Third Country Nationals. Migrants fleeing Libya entered Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Algeria, Chad and Sudan. Can you discuss the key policy implications of such uncontrolled mass migration, including in terms of IOM’s assistance operations, and the reception and protection capacities of the receiving countries?

Ü William Lacy Swing: Talking of “uncontrolled mass migration” in the context of the Libyan crisis is in my view excessive, especially in the current economic, political and social context in Europe where scaremongering on the threat of a so-called North African “migration tsunami” is not uncommon.

The dramatic events in Libya essentially triggered an acute migration emergency at a sub-regional level. So far, those large outflows have been successfully addressed, thanks first and foremost to the open border policies of neighbouring countries that have allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross into Tunisia, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, into Algeria, Niger, Chad and Sudan.

It is because those countries kept their borders open and provided generous humanitarian assistance, including through their Red Crescent societies and local population, that a full-fledged humanitarian and migration crisis was averted. This remarkable policy decision allowed IOM and its partners to set up an unprecedented humanitarian evacuation programme for hundreds of thousands of stranded African and Asian migrants. Their desire to return to the safety of their homes and families and the requests to IOM from dozens of governments to assist their nationals crossing borders by the thousands each hour at the peak of the human outflow meant IOM had to work fast to assist them. The first evacuations began on 28 February, little more than a week after the conflict in Libya started.

By mid-March, IOM and UNHCR jointly appealed to donors for more funding and logistical support to assist the large numbers of desperate migrants arriving on a daily basis in Tunisia, Egypt and in neighbouring countries.

Prompt funding and in-kind support from the EU and other countries followed. This and extensive cooperation with all countries and parties involved allowed IOM to not only strengthen and scale up its life-saving evacuations by air from neighbouring countries, but also to begin land and sea evacuations from inside Libya as fighting raged.

The expansion of this evacuation programme was in many ways crucial to alleviate mounting migratory pressures on Tunisia and Egypt, the two main receiving countries, and to some extent on Europe’s southern borders. By the end of May, only a few thousand migrants and refugees per day remained at the borders with Tunisia and Egypt awaiting evacuation or resettlement to another country.

There is no denying that Europe and more specifically the Italian island of Lampedusa have witnessed an increase in the number of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers arriving by boat first from Tunisia following the fall of the Ben Ali regime and later from Libya. Totalling some 34,500 people by mid-May, including some 23,000 irregular migrants, these arrivals represent a very small percentage of the overall number of people who moved because of events in North Africa.

Yet, these limited numbers have rekindled rampant anti-immigrant feelings among some segments of the European population, which have in turn have spurred some strong political responses.

They range from talk of increased protectionism to safeguarding national job markets to the reintroduction of limited internal border controls within the Schengen area. It is worth remembering that these calls come at a time of soaring unemployment in Europe, with young people being particularly affected. In Spain, youth unemployment currently stands at a staggering 45%, promoting major protests around the slogan “A Europe for its Citizens.” This situation could be further exacerbated as many analysts predict a slowdown of the economic recovery in the Eurozone.

In this context, more needs to be done to engage North African countries in migration partnerships that go beyond simple border control measures and often contentious readmission issues. In my view, the enforcement of the rule of law in relation to irregular migratory movements works best if balanced and complemented by measures promoting regular migration, community stabilization and socio-economic growth in the countries of origin and transit and social inclusion in destination countries.

Reinforcing partnerships with North African countries within for instance the European Neighbourhood Policy would send the right signals to those countries and to their populations who at times feel a lack of solidarity from European countries. The setting up of mobility partnerships would certainly go some way to addressing these perceptions.

Similarly, there’s been even less appetite to discuss and set up proper burden sharing mechanisms for Somalis, Eritreans and others in need of international protection who left Libya and who remain stuck in camps in North Africa because there are simply not enough resettlement opportunities for them. This has led some Somalis, who had initially crossed into Tunisia to return to Libya to try and sail to Lampedusa, with tragic consequences. An untold number have perished when their overloaded boats capsized at sea. Safe and efficient asylum procedures are needed now more than ever for those in need of international protection.

Increased intra-EU solidarity is needed to address the concerns of countries in Southern Europe that consider that they carry too much of a burden in the current migration situation. An extension of the concept of Intra-EU Re-allocation from Malta (EUREMA) would constitute a step in the right direction. This pilot project, which brings together Malta and ten EU participating Members States with the support of IOM, UNHCR and the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office (EASO), has contributed to extending resettlement options for people in need of international protection.

Finally, I believe more attention has to be paid to the pressing needs of some sub-Saharan African and Asian countries experiencing a dramatic decrease in remittances as large numbers of their nationals return empty-handed from Libya, with little or no opportunity to resume an active economic life.

This is especially important for African countries that have also been affected by the recent crisis in Cote d’Ivoire and by the on-going economic downturn in Europe. The latter is particularly affecting migrant workers who end up competing for fewer jobs in depressed sectors such as construction, agriculture and services.

An innovative response to these pressing issues has been developed by Bangladesh, which has recently signed an agreement with IOM to provide reintegration grants to some 36,500 Bangladeshi migrant workers who fled the violence in Libya and returned home. The agreement, which is financed through a US$ 40 million World Bank loan to Bangladesh, will hopefully help returnees cushion the hardship and help them resume a productive economic life.

It is also worth noting that Bangladesh will also contribute USD 12.6 million to IOM for the repatriation costs of 10,000 of the nearly 31,000 Bangladeshi workers that IOM flew home during the early days of the crisis, mainly from Tunisia and Egypt.

Ü Eurasylum: At the end of March this year, Tunisia’s new government agreed to new measures intended to block refugees from heading to Italy and to convince those in Italy to return. The Italian government announced that it would provide a line of credit of EUR 150 million, to be used for economic assistance for Tunisians agreeing to return home, as well as for training and resources for Tunisian border control. On 23 March, Frontex decided to extend the duration of Joint Operation Hermes in Lampedusa and Sardinia until the end of August 2011, in order to strengthen Europe’s border control response capability in the Central Mediterranean. Can you discuss the policy implications of these flows for the EU, particularly in relation to the current discussion about a possible recast of the Schengen regime, and to issues of intra-EU solidarity (e.g. relocation, financial/material assistance etc.)?

Ü William Lacy Swing: As far as I know, the government of Tunisia did not agree to set up measures to block refugees from heading to Europe as you suggest. My understanding is that Tunisia agreed to work with the Italian authorities to better control their land and sea borders and clamp down on opportunistic networks that were promptly set up after the fall of the Ben Ali regime to smuggle young Tunisians to Europe in search of better economic opportunities.

This request came at a time when thousands of young Tunisians migrants were suddenly arriving on Lampedusa, prompting the mayor of the island to declare a state of emergency and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to call EU President Herman Van Rompuy to underline of urgency of a situation that was of concern to the entire European Union.

In many ways, the sudden arrival of thousands of young Tunisians on Lampedusa sent shock waves through Italy and beyond, especially since arrivals on the island had almost stopped in 2010 as a result of tighter border controls, joint sea patrols and interceptions at sea.

IOM, which had been in Lampedusa alongside UNHCR, Save the Children and the Italian Red Cross from 2006 until mid 2009 to provide assistance to irregular migrants, quickly resumed its work on the island. Additional staff was also deployed to Bari, Brindisi and Foggia in Puglia and in the main migrant reception centres in Sicily to assist those who had been transferred from Lampedusa.

However, the protracted nature of the conflict in Libya soon led to undocumented migrant workers and asylum seekers embarking on overcrowded boats from Tripoli to attempt the all too often ill-fated sea journey to Lampedusa. This new flow further exacerbated erroneous public perception of “uncontrolled” migration to Europe.

Ironically, this further toughening in public opinion happened at a time when Italy was doing its best to tackle the complex nature of mixed migration flows. Renewed attention was paid to vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors, victims of trafficking, smuggled migrants and those in need of medical or psychological assistance.

These distinctions have to be made, in particular at a time when vocal minorities are calling for migrants and asylum seekers alike to be put on boats and pushed back to where they came from. It should be obvious for all that among those seeking to enter the EU are many vulnerable people, including those whose life is at risk and are in need of international protection.

IOM has constantly argued for the adoption of migration policies that are balanced and comprehensive. This would serve Europe well. We believe that efforts to strengthen migration management and border security should be done in a way that safeguards the rights of migrants. Similarly, attempts to curtail irregular migration flows can only be sustainable if more avenues for legal migration are opened to those who wish to make a success out of their need to migrate. Finally, increased investments in the socio-economic development of the MENA region will contribute to reduce some of the most obvious push factors. All this can only be achieved though partnerships, which are critical in our new migration world.

As for a possible recast of the Schengen regime, a recent European Council meeting rightly pointed out that the free movements of persons, as established by the Treaty, is one of the most tangible and successful achievements of European integration. Discussions around the introduction of a safeguard clause that would allow the exceptional reintroduction of internal border controls under a truly critical situation and for a strictly limited scope and period of time are on-going.

Without prejudging what will come out of those discussions, events in the MENA region highlight the fact that an extensive dialogue on migration is now a top priority for countries on both sides of the Mediterranean. This dialogue, building on the achievements of the Euro-African Ministerial Conference on Migration and Development, must be action oriented and forward looking as there is little doubt that the driving forces behind international migration will endure beyond the current turmoil in the MENA region.