EU seeks to curb Libya migrant flows

BRUSSELS: After blocking the main migrant route from the Middle East, the EU will this week seek ways to check a feared spring surge from Libya and North Africa across the Mediterranean. The European Union lacks a reliable partner in Libya, the launchpad for almost all migrant crossings over the central Mediterranean, while some African governments along the trail north have been reluctant to cooperate, EU sources and experts said.
The European Commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, is due to unveil new proposals to tackle the issue on Wednesday, before ministers address it at talks in Malta on Thursday and Friday.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat — whose country is using its six-month presidency of the EU to highlight a crisis that has badly affected the island — warned two weeks ago that the EU should meet soon with Libyan authorities to try to avert the risk of an “unprecedented” migrant flow in the spring.
Trafficking on the central Mediterranean route is picking up sharply with more than 180,000 migrants landing in Italy last year, compared with a previous annual record of 170,100 in 2014.
Muscat wants a Libya deal that copies aspects of a controversial EU aid-for-cooperation deal with Turkey that has sharply slowed the number of Syrian and other asylum seekers landing in Greece.
But that will be tough, as 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 Ghaddafi. Meanwhile the EU’s naval operation “Sophia”, launched in 2015 to crack down on smugglers on the high seas, has no green light to intervene in Libyan waters.
“The operation is only partly useful because we can’t really act against the smugglers,” a European diplomat said. “They abandon people on rickety boats before the international waters and then let them drift.”
Now, Malta has floated the idea of having the EU step up its months-old programme to train and equip Libya’s coastguard to form a “line of protection” nearer the embarcation points, according to a proposal seen by AFP.
The Libyan coastguard would then return the migrants to shore where they would be taken into the EU in the right conditions under international law. “The problem is that you have no reliable partner on the Libyan side,” Stefan Lehne, an analyst with the think tank Carnegie Europe, said.
The lack of a reliable interlocutor will likely force the EU to focus to try to work with countries through which migrants travel north, EU sources said. Most of the migrants coming from Africa are viewed by the EU as economic migrants who should be deported to their original countries, rather than refugees like those fleeing war in Syria. — AFP