EU seeks deals to staunch Libya-to-Italy migrant route

Cold shoulder: The EU deems Syrians to be fleeing war, but Africans are labelled economic migrants. (Photo: Marko Djurica, Reuters)

Cold shoulder: The EU deems Syrians to be fleeing war, but Africans are labelled economic migrants. (Photo: Marko Djurica, Reuters)

European Union leaders meeting in Malta on February 3 faced the challenge of how to work with a chaotic Libya and reluctant sub-Saharan African countries to prevent a feared upsurge of migrant smuggling to Europe.

The central Mediterranean route that runs predominantly from Libya to Italy was on the agenda at the EU summit in Valletta.

Concern has shifted from the Aegean route since a March 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stop migrant flows slashed the number of people landing in Greece after fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East.

Though far fewer than the hundreds of thousands who had arrived in Greece before the deal, a record 180 000 migrants landed in Italy last year and some 4 500 died while trying to reach Europe’s shores.

The migrants travelling via North Africa, the vast majority through Libya, come from: Nigeria (21%), Eritrea (11%) and 7% each from Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and the Gambia, according to the European Commission.

Unlike Syrians, most are deemed illegal economic migrants who are seeking jobs rather than fleeing war and persecution.
They are usually ordered home.

In 2015, the EU launched Operation Sophia, a naval mission in international waters, which has seized hundreds of rickety boats, arrested about 100 suspected smugglers and rescued more than 32 000 people. But it cannot operate in Libyan waters, limiting its effectiveness in stopping smuggling boats leaving the coast.

Some European officials fear Operation Sophia may encourage migrants because they know they stand a chance of being rescued by EU navies and taken to Italy as soon as they leave Libyan waters.

Barred from Libya’s waters, the EU is betting on the support of Libya’s coastguard to crack down on the smugglers and then take migrants back to their shores.

Operation Sophia has been training and equipping Libyan coast- guard officers since October last year, and EU leaders are now examining a proposal to release new funds to train them, as well as give UN agencies the means to help Libyans look after the migrants.

But a Turkish-style deal with Libya is less likely. The UN-backed Libyan unity government is locked in a power struggle with a rival administration in eastern Libya as it seeks to end years of lawlessness following the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. The focus is instead on helping the unity government to stablise the country and ensure the proper treatment of migrants.

The EU now seeks the co-operation of Libya’s North African neighbours Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria while it pursues “compacts” with countries south of Libya.

Last year, the EU opened talks with Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Ethiopia to offer these countries development aid in a bid to encourage more of their citizens to remain in their home countries.

The EU has also urged them to re-admit more of their citizens after they are expelled from Europe.

But these countries are reluctant to take their migrants back for fear they could lose large sums in worker remittances from Europe. As an inducement, the EU seems ready to open legal channels of migration to Europe.

To discourage migration, some Europeans have raised controversial ideas such as sending migrants rescued at sea to “safe places outside the EU”, presumably in North Africa, rather than European shores.

The reception centres outside the EU would then be used to determine which individuals could be admitted to Europe as refugees or rejected as illegal migrants.

But such a move risks the EU falling foul of human rights groups and even of international law on returning people to unsafe countries. — AFP

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