Will the EU's new migrant deals prevent the next deadly Mediterranean shipwreck?

6 min read
31 January, 2024

On 11 October 2023, less than four days after Hamas conducted its attack on Israel, the online newspaper EUobserver reported that the potential displacement of Palestinian refugees from Gaza into Egypt, as part of a predicted Israeli retaliation, had “spooked the European Commission into fast-tracking a possible migrant-busting deal with Cairo”.

The deal in question, more formally known as an Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnership, attempts to curb irregular migration into the European Union (EU) from neighbouring non-EU countries. Similar partnerships are already in place with Morocco and Tunisia.

Other EU-focused outlets echoed the same sentiment.

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On 25 October 2023, two days before Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, a senior EU diplomat told Politico Europe that support for Egypt was necessary to “address the potential flow of refugees fleeing from Gaza”.

But negotiations over this potentially new EU-Egypt migration deal predate the war on Gaza, The New Arab (TNA) has established based on documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

The documents suggest that the deal is part of the European Commission (EC)’s “high-level outreach to Egypt” in the aftermath of the Pylos shipwreck in June 2023.

The shipwreck was one of the deadliest migration tragedies in the Mediterranean since 2015, killing 82 people. More than 500 migrants - including about 100 children - are still missing.

Nine Egyptian survivors have been arrested and charged with smuggling. Their case is still pending in Greek courts.

"Anti-Smuggling Partnerships are 'tailor-made' legally non-binding agreements between the EU and neighbouring countries with the stated goal of combating migrant smuggling and preventing deaths"

The documents obtained by TNA include emails between the EC’s Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs and Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, exchanged days before and after the boat disaster.

Frontex was tasked with providing information about the boat’s original point of departure, as well as the main nationalities on the ship. The information was meant for “the Commission top floors”, said one of the emails.

TNA contacted the EC’s press officer for migration and home affairs for comment but did not receive a reply in time for publication.

Screenshot - In-depth/Anas
Screenshot from an internal email sent from the EC's Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs to Frontex on 16 June 2023. [TNA]

What are the new Anti-Smuggling Operational Partnerships?

First announced in September 2021, the Anti-Smuggling Partnerships are “tailor-madelegally non-binding agreements between the European Union and neighbouring countries with the stated goal of combating migrant smuggling, and ultimately, preventing deaths.

The partnerships provide funding, equipment, and training to the authorities of these countries to boost their migration and border management activities, such as search-and-rescue operations.

However, these partnership agreements have been mired in controversy from the start.

A first partnership agreement, reached with Morocco in July 2022, came only a few weeks after Moroccan authorities killed 37 migrants, and injured hundreds, in what has since been dubbed the Melilla massacre.

On 24 June 2022, some two thousand people attempted to storm the border fence separating them from the Spanish enclave of Melilla. They were beaten back by Moroccan police and some were left in piles on the ground for hours, without medical assistance.

A fence separating the enclave of Melilla, Spain from Morocco. [Getty]

A more recent partnership was agreed as part of a Memorandum of Understanding signed on 16 July 2023 between Tunisia and the EU. In return for a pledge of more than €1 billion in budget support to the country’s ailing finances, €105 million is to be used to reduce migration flows and “avoid loss of human lives”.

The budget support pledge might already be in jeopardy, as a small faction within the European Parliament submitted a motion on 25 January to block part of it, “argu[ing] this funding to be in violation of EU law”.

Sara Prestianni, advocacy director at EuroMed Rights, says that the expansion of these partnerships “is kind of a paradox”.

“In general, what we can observe in the last year, is that [EU’s] externalisation policies, not only are not preventing the increase of deaths at sea, but are increasing the number of deaths at sea,” she told The New Arab.

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“A good example is Libya, where from 2017, there has been a project to strengthen the capacity of interception at sea that is leading migrants to be intercepted and sent back to Libya. Then [the migrants] try again and again, [thus] increasing the risk of death,” she explained.

The EU has been bankrolling Libya’s coastguards to increase their capacity to intercept migrants at sea.

The EU has continued its funding policy, despite EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson admitting in July 2023 that Libyan coastguards have been infiltrated by “criminal groups”.

It is not clear how these migration deals would therefore prevent “the loss of migrants' lives at the hands of smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea”, as the EC claims.

"In general, what we can observe in the last year, is that [EU's] externalisation policies, not only are not preventing the increase of deaths at sea, but are increasing the number of deaths at sea"

Why then conclude a deal with Egypt?

The number of arrivals of Egyptian nationals into Europe, and especially Italy, has increased significantly. In 2022 alone, some 20,000 Egyptians arrived there, according to the Italian Ministry of Interior.

But for Prestianni, the paradox of establishing a migration agreement with Egypt does not end there.

“Most of these Egyptian citizens are not leaving from Egyptian shores, they are leaving from eastern Libya,” she told TNA.

This is corroborated by the internal emails obtained in TNA’s Freedom of Information request.

The emails list the names of the airlines that transport migrants into Benghazi airport, in eastern Libya, which include Egypt’s national carrier EgyptAir and the Syrian airline Cham Wings.

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Screenshot from an internal email sent from Frontex to the EC's Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs on 12 June 2023. It lists the names of airlines involved in transporting migrants to Benghazi in eastern Libya. [TNA]

Similarly to Tunisia, an Anti-Smuggling Partnership with cash-strapped Egypt is likely to include provisions for budget support in exchange for more active involvement of Egyptian authorities in migrant interception, both at sea and on land.

Migrant interceptions by Tunisian coastguards quickly resumed after the EU concluded its agreement with Tunis in July 2023.

The agreement would therefore allow the increase of the number of sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea, without deploying the EU’s own forces.

The European Commission refuses to run EU-wide sea rescue operations and prefers to delegate those duties to its member states, some of which have criminalised migrant rescue.

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It would also allow EU leaders to rely less on their problematic partnership with Haftar, especially after an investigation by Lighthouse Reports found that the Pylos shipwreck boat trip was organised by individuals reporting directly to the general-turned-warlord.

While the partnerships might succeed in preventing migrant boats from leaving the territorial waters of the North African countries, it remains to be seen if they can succeed in reducing the number of attempted departures.

Sara Prestianni, EuroMed Rights’s advocacy director, would like to see a different approach.

“Concerning the anti-smuggling concept, I think that it's clear, for whoever is analysing migration flow in the region, that the only way to decrease the number of deaths, and also to decrease the number of the departures by boats is to open legal pathways,” she said.

“That is clear with Libya, that is clear with Tunisia, that is also clear with Egypt.”

Anas Ambri is a researcher at The New Arab Investigative Unit.

Follow him on Twitter: @AnasAmbri