Crisis looms as EU gears up for new migrant wave
Valleta - Tens of thousands of people seeking better lives are expected to trek across deserts and board unseaworthy boats in war-torn Libya this year in a desperate effort to reach European shores.
More than 181,000 people, most economic migrants with little chance of being allowed to stay in Europe, attempted to cross the central Mediterranean in 2016 from Libya, Africa’s nearest stretch of coast to Italy. About 4,500 people died or disappeared while trying to reach Europe.
Hundreds of migrants, braving winter weather, took to the sea in January. In the latest reminder of the journey’s perils, more than 100 people went missing off Libya’s coast in mid-January after a migrant boat sunk.
Some European leaders are warning of a fresh migration crisis when sea waters warm again and more people choose to put their lives in the hands of smugglers.
“Come next spring, the number of people crossing over the Mediterranean will reach record levels,” Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the European Union’s presidency, predicted.
“The choice is trying to do something now or meeting urgently in April, May… and try to do a deal then.”
The European Union has a controversial deal to stem the flow of migrants from Turkey, which has agreed to try to stop the number of them leaving the country and to take back thousands more. In exchange, Turkey is supposed to receive billions of dollars, visa-free travel for its citizens and fast-tracked EU membership talks.
Now, the European Union wants to adapt this outsourcing pact to the African countries that migrants are leaving or are jumping off from to reach Europe, despite criticism that the agreement sends asylum seekers back to countries that could be unsafe for them.
The bottom line is that the Turkey deal works. The number of people arriving in the Greek islands plunged over the last year despite political wrangling over whether Turkey’s government was meeting conditions for securing the visa-free travel incentive and EU countries have even fewer scruples about turning away migrants who take the central Mediterranean route to Italy because they mostly are job seekers who would be ineligible for asylum.
Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Mali and Chad are all on the European Union’s radar and dealing with them is proving expensive but the bloc’s arrangement with Turkey has shown that the best way of stemming migrant flows is to stop people taking to the sea. Libya and Egypt are the main migrant departure points and pacts with them would probably have the biggest immediate effect.
Muscat wants to build on a deal Italy is trying to reach with Libya by adding EU funds and other support. He also says the European Union’s anti-smuggler naval mission — Operation Sophia — should be extended into Libyan territorial waters to stop people in unsafe boats from reaching open water.
Easier said than done. The European Union has been unable to secure the United Nations’ backing for such a move and Libya has no central authority with the reach or stability to negotiate a long-term agreement with the Europeans.
“The reality of Libya right now is that there is no unified government controlling all parts of the country and no end of groups willing to upend things if there is an advantage in it for them,” said Carlo Binda, a Libya expert with Malta-based political and development consultancy Binda Consulting International.
Libya’s neighbour Egypt appears a more viable option. Many people have set out for Europe from Egypt in recent months, mainly migrants from the Horn of Africa trying to avoid dangerous Libya and, increasingly, Egyptians themselves, the European Union’s border agency Frontex said.
Despite some instability, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former general who led the 2013 military removal of an elected Islamist president, is a man with whom the Europeans say they can do business. Sisi also wields plenty of influence in Libya. Egypt’s economy has been battered by unrest since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“Egypt is the country with which one could come to some sort of agreement,” Maltese Foreign Minister George Vella said. “There is stability to a certain extent and they are interested because even they themselves have got their own problem with migration.”
If there is one thing the world’s biggest trading bloc does well, it is raise funds to pay for its problems. Time is of the essence. The European Union has for several years tried to cobble together migration polices while people died at sea.
The refugee emergency, Europe’s worst since the second world war, also has raised tensions among EU members. Some have erected anti-migrant fences or reintroduced border controls amid deep disagreement over how to manage the challenge.
“Things are getting complicated. I would rather face the music now,” Muscat said.
(The Associated Press)