The journey from Nigeria to Libya nearly killed Jon, a fifteen-year-old boy fleeing Boko Haram and almost certain death back home, according to the UNICEF report entitled “A Deadly Journey for Children.” Jon is one of many unaccompanied children who have left their homes in the last few years to seek a better life in Europe by way of the Central Mediterranean Migration Route. The route is thousands of kilometers long and it has been traversed by hundreds of thousands of passengers as wars, food insecurity, persecution, and violence push entire communities from their homes in sub-Saharan Africa. The well-trodden path, however, is characterized by its brutality and the mistreatment its travelers experience. Individuals have described lacking drinking water and food as they cross the harsh desert in order to enter Libya where many are held in inhospitable detention centers. There, they wait, work, and experience untold abuses until they can pay human smugglers enough money to be transferred to rickety rafts in the Mediterranean that often sink before ever seeing the shores of Europe.
While human suffering on the migration trail continues every day, Europe, the intended destination of most migrants on the path, has struggled to provide for these new residents. Over the last decade, migrants have navigated the often-perilous journey to Europe in ever-increasing numbers. In almost every year between 2010 and 2017, Europe saw an increase in the number of African migrants seeking refuge on the Continent from the political, economic, and social strife they encountered at home. More recently, the number of migrants arriving in Europe has decreased, largely as a consequence of European policy choices to invest heavily in African defense forces that prevent migrants from leaving the continent to seek asylum at all. Still, millions of migrants have traveled to Europe since the crisis began. These population shifts led to nearly insupportable levels of new arrivals for many of Europe’s nations already beleaguered from years of slow economic growth following the most recent global recession. In Europe, this massive inflow of new people has caused enormous upheaval, forcing the governments of these nations to provide solutions to hitherto unforeseen challenges.
Officials have consequently brainstormed ways to prevent migrants from taking the incredibly risky journey across the Mediterranean in the first place. Most migrants that arrive do not receive asylum. After rejection from their intended host nations, many migrants choose to remain in Europe illegally, exacerbating their vulnerability in these foreign lands. The goal for these nations has become a matter of discouraging the journeys that already entail challenges that most would not be willing to endure if other options existed. Thus, Europe and the United Nations have sought other ways to provide for migrants to make asylum claims or return to their homes free of charge, before they enter the Mediterranean. Their efforts have yielded mixed results.
In order to discourage Migrants from taking to the sea, the French government announced in 2017 that it would begin establishing asylum hotspots in Africa. These hotspots would function as asylum processing outposts on behalf of the French government. There, migrants could bring their asylum claims and receive a decision as to whether they will be permitted to stay in France on asylum claims. The standards for proving the need for asylum remain the same at the hotspots as they are at home. The only difference is that asylum officers decide on claims in the nations that many Africans are fleeing, saving migrants the financial, personal, physical, emotional, and mental costs associated with the harrowing journeys that connect them to Europe. Following the announcement by French President Macron, officials established the first hotspots and began processing claims. The European Union also considered the idea for broader implementation.
While the number of migrant arrivals declined contemporaneously to France’s choice to establish these asylum hotspots, it is unlikely that the hotspots have had any real bearing on the migration crisis. Other, more extreme measures taken by the EU and its member nations have likely led to the drastic reduction in attempts to traverse the Mediterranean. At the same time, these hotspots have proved an invaluable tool for those with genuine asylum claims. If granted asylum at one of these hotspots, the asylum seekers are permitted to enter Europe through traditional channels and are spared the trip across desert and sea through the hands of human smugglers. They can bypass the detention centers that have been characterized as concentration camps and begin their lives anew abroad. As of now, however, the hotspots remain a point of contention throughout Europe and they may still pose a challenge to nations attempting to fulfill their human rights obligations as different versions of the hotspot rules are implemented.
As admirable as the benefits have been for those that do receive asylum, the program is also far too small to actually impact the migration crisis. Others have claimed that the French government is simply trying to externalize the migration crisis from Europe and that its plan lacks genuine compassion. These hotspots merely push the faces of human suffering beyond France’s borders. Due to the extremely limited size of the program and the relatively small number of individuals who eventually receive asylum, such claims are not without foundation. If the program could be expanded, however, critics do feel it might be possible to bring some order to the chaos the migration crisis has engendered.
In addition to asylum hotspots, the United Nations has initiated a repatriation program with the European Union in order to provide a means of returning home for Migrants before they take a chance on the open waters. Launched in 2016, the program has managed to return 40,000 migrants to their nations of origin, as of February 2019. Yet again, the number of migrants registered by the Organization for Migration in Libya alone numbers more than 400,000 and may be as high as 700,000. Without more robust assistance programs, Migrants will continue to suffer. These efforts, however, represent two relatively humane alternatives to the other available options, and with proper investment, they can continue to yield positive consequences for those most in need.