EU leaders agree to help Libya with migrant crisis
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European Union leaders have taken a gamble on Libya’s fragile interim government by offering Tripoli €200 million and assistance in beefing up its frontier controls to help them prevent a new wave of African migrants this spring.
Meeting in Malta – in the sea lane to Italy where more than 4,500 people drowned last year – the leaders addressed legal and moral concerns about having Libyan coastguards force people ashore by pledging to improve conditions in migrant camps there.
Aid groups, however, accused the EU, whose leaders are under popular pressure to be seen to be controlling immigration, of abandoning humanitarian values and misrepresenting conditions in Libya, where the UN-backed government of Fayez Seraj has only a shaky and partial hold on the sprawling desert nation.
Médecins Sans Frontieres, which works in camps there, said: “Libya is not a safe place and blocking people in the country or returning them to Libya makes a mockery of the EU’s so-called fundamental values of human dignity and rule of law.”
Libya has been in chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Two authorities are fighting for power today. The Government of National Accord (GNA), which is recognized by the international community. And the "government" of Marshal Haftar, to the east of the territory. Between the two, many jihadist militias coexist with the aim of establishing their power over certain regions of the country.
The chaos in Libya has thwarted any hope of a quick fix in the way that a controversial EU deal with Turkey a year ago led to a virtual halt to a migrant route to Germany via Greece along which a million asylum-seekers travelled in 2015.
On Thursday, Seraj signed an agreement with Italy, which offered €200 million euros ($215 million) of its own. Rome fears new arrivals this spring, following a record 181,000 irregular immigrants last year, would put pressure on services and risk a popular backlash – especially since its EU neighbours are no longer letting most migrants travel north out of Italy.
Many EU governments are sceptical that the latest measures can have much effect on migration.
One senior diplomat called it a “long shot”. Several said the declaration was intended partly to appease Italian demands that the Union be seen to be acting.
Longer term, Europeans are placing hopes in using their aid muscle in Africa to reduce incentives for people to leave and give governments there incentives to take back citizens who fail to win asylum in Europe.
Deporting more of those who reach Italy is part of a wider plan to send signals to Africans not to risk the Sahara and Mediterranean in the vain hope of a better life.
At Agadez in Niger, numbers gathering to cross the Sahara have plunged in recent months, which some EU officials think may indicate that strategy of deterrence is working. However, people smugglers may just have altered routes.
British Prime Minister Theresa May attended despite her plan to start negotiations by next month to take Britain out of the EU – a reminder, British officials said, that she wanted to go on cooperating with European neighbours after Brexit.
May also had a chance to brief peers on her visit last week to US President Donald Trump, whose backing for Brexit, doubts on free trade, barring of refugees and warmth toward Russia have all raised alarm in Europe.
Some European leaders disapprove of May’s rush to embrace Trump, although others, notably in the east, have endorsed his tough line against Muslim immigration.
French President François Hollande said European governments should stick together, not seek special favours from Washington.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Europe has its fate in its own hands ... The clearer we are about how we define our role in the world, the better we can also take care of our Transatlantic relations.”
The European leaders will turn their attention after May leaves later in the day to how to shore up popular support for the EU. They will hash out ideas for a declaration on the bloc’s future when they mark its 60th anniversary in Rome in March.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)