Political Goals over Moral Obligations: Europe’s Troubled Response in the Mediterranean


The issue of irregular migration has plagued the Mediterranean region in recent years, with Libya serving as a major transit point for individuals desperately seeking safety, security, and livelihoods. However, despite the harrowing stories, countless deaths, and the deteriorating situation in Libya and other African countries, Europe’s response has been primarily focused on curbing migration by strengthening its external borders and shifting responsibilities onto other actors. The recent decision by the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council on the EU Pact on Migration & Asylum only raises more concerns about the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees aspiring to rebuild their life in Europe.

News and reports have repeatedly exposed the alarming situation faced by those attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. Figures have reached catastrophic levels: the first quarter of 2023 witnessed a threefold increase in the number of people attempting to reach the EU through the Mediterranean compared to the previous year. So far this year, the Libyan Coast Guard intercepted over 5,750 people, often subjecting them to torture, extortion, and sexual abuse in detention centers, as well as more than 1000 people lost their lives or went missing at sea. Yet, Europe continues to turn a blind eye on and is even complicit in the mounting human toll, choosing political goals over moral obligations.

In an effort to gain deeper insights into the experiences and perspectives of individuals caught in this migration crisis as well as to share vital information to support their journey towards a better future, Upinion has engaged with over 2,000 migrants in Libya, most of them originating from Sudan and Syria. During the months of August and September 2021, Upinion engaged in conversations on their living situations, the factors driving their migration, and the distressing experiences faced by those seeking to escape their current circumstances. This blog sheds light on Upinion’s insights on these migrants’ priorities in Libya and urges European countries to take decisive action in addressing this humanitarian crisis.

Escaping Desperation: Upinion’s insights on migrants’ priorities in Libya

Libya, torn by internal conflicts and political instability, has become a breeding ground for irregular migratory pathways, characterised by human trafficking and smuggling networks. For the majority of migrants in Upinion’s online community in the country, these struggles included not having valid legal documentation (66%), being unemployed (66%), and a constant sense of lack of safety and security, nurturing a strong desire to escape Libya and reach Europe. These factors greatly influenced the efforts made by individuals to leave Libya: two-thirds of the migrants Upinion was in touch with said to have made these attempts. However, almost 70% of them were intercepted and returned by the Libyan Coast Guard, with nearly half of them being arrested and detained when trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

“When we tried to cross the Mediterranean we were arrested and extorted by the Libyan authorities, including the Libyan Coast Guard. They stole everything from us, even our clothes. We cannot move because we don’t have residency in Libya. We tried to obtain residency, but the Libyan authorities refused to give it to us. We are subject to racism and persecution here.” – Syrian female refugee (aged 26 – 35) in Libya, 2021

I thought a lot about communicating with smugglers to cross the sea to reach Europe, but I could not because of the large sums of money they ask for. In addition, they are complicit when we get intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which carry out inhumane violations against detainees and blackmail us” – Syrian male refugee (aged 26 – 35) in Libya, 2021

Europe’s inhumane response

Even in the face of ongoing tragedies, Europe’s response to irregular migration from Libya has been woefully inadequate and inhumane. The recent incident reported by Al Jazeera, where approximately 500 people were stranded on a distressed boat in the Mediterranean, once again highlights Europe’s lack of comprehensive and coordinated approach.

Instead of taking decisive action, Europe has resorted to policies that have scaled down their own rescue capacity, restrict access to services for migrants upon arrival, hinder humanitarian organisations in their search and rescue missions, and that irresponsibly shift the burden onto the Libyan Coast Guard, relying on them to intercept and handle migrants. Compounding these issues is the financial support by European countries provided to the Libyan Coast Guard, enabling circumvention of international laws prohibiting pushbacks and inadvertently contributing to the cycle that prioritises interception and containment over ensuring the safety and well-being of those affected.

“The lack of human rights protection for migrants at sea is not a “tragic anomaly”, but rather a consequence of concrete policy decisions and practices by the Libyan authorities, the European Union (EU) Member States and institutions, and other actors” – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR), May 2021

The Recent JHA Council Decision

The recent decision by the JHA Council on the EU Pact on Migration & Asylum exacerbates concerns on Europe’s persistent lack of compassion towards these ongoing tragedies. One of the most worrying aspects is the introduction of the “safe third country” concept. The discretion given to Member States to determine the criteria for a country to be considered “safe” and to be somehow “connected” to the asylum seeker opens the door for potential abuse and arbitrary decisions. It allows swift returns and refoulements based solely on transit through a third country, which could result in non-Libyan asylum seekers being returned to Libya, for instance.

Furthermore, there are other alarming developments to consider. New mandatory border procedures, which aim to ‘keep’ certain asylum seekers at the borders to make return more effective, specifically target asylum seekers with nationalities having a recognition rate below 20% and can last up to six months. This policy will lead to a significant increase in detentions, including the detention of children. Additionally, the imposition of a 20,000 Euro “fine” on EU countries that are unable to accommodate or relocate migrants is likely to serve as funding used for externalisation purposes.

“Amid this race to the bottom in the asylum system, EU countries are trying now more than ever to pressure non-EU countries into taking on Europe’s responsibilities.” Stephanie Pope, Oxfam EU migration expert, 6th June 2023

A Call to Action: Europe’s Moral Obligation in Addressing Irregular Migration

The plight of migrants attempting the dangerous journey from North African countries to Europe cannot be ignored any longer. The findings from Upinion provide valuable insights into the motivations and challenges faced by migrants in Libya, further strengthening the critical analysis of irregular migration from the point of view of individuals themselves. The Mediterranean has been – and still will be if no action is taken – witnessing the tragic loss of many lives, while European nations relentlessly exhibit a shocking lack of empathy and responsibility.

It is imperative that European governments acknowledge their moral obligation to protect and assist those in need. They must work towards addressing the root causes of irregular migration, including the violence and instability in Libya and other African countries, and establish safe and legal pathways for migrants. The time for indifference is over; it is time for Europe to demonstrate true people-centred leadership and choose moral obligations over political goals in the face of this humanitarian crisis.