EU leaders rubber stamped a plan to curb migration from Libya at an informal summit in Malta today (3 February), offering Tripoli €200 million to better control its borders.
“We managed to achieve progress and unity,” said Joseph Muscat, prime minister of Malta, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
The deadly route across the Central Mediterranean is now the main gateway to Europe, with some 181,000 arrivals in 2016. It is run by smugglers who operate with impunity in Libya, which slid into chaos after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
EU leaders agreed on immediate operational measures that should help reduce the number of irregular migrants and save lives of those who attempt to risk the journey through the Central Mediterranean route.
Since the start of the decade, over 13,000 irregular migrants have lost their lives trying to cross through that route.
The plan agreed in Malta is supposed to train, equip and support Libyan coastguards to stop people smugglers and increase search and rescue operations, which in the last two years has saved over 400,000 lives.
“We will deliver economic assistance to local communities in Libya to improve their situation, and help them shelter stranded migrants,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, speaking to journalists after the meeting.
The EU will work in close cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency to step up voluntary returns from Libya to countries of origin.
Earlier this week, Libya’s western-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj complained that his country was not receiving enough money from the EU to deal with the migration problem.
Ahead of the Malta summit, al-Sarraj said: “We hope that the EU mechanisms to help Libya will be more practical. We are not going to mention the amount of money that are dedicated to Libya for this help because they are very humble, very small amounts.”
The EU is counting on member states to do their part. “We have decided to support member states’ bilateral activities directly engaged with Libya,” Tusk said, welcoming the Memorandum of Understanding signed yesterday (2 February) by the Italian and Libyan prime ministers as another important and encouraging sign that things are about to change for the better.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni told reporters that the deal is “just a piece” of a EU wider plan and that the EU must make an “economic commitment” to ensure the success of the Libyan-Italian plan.
The agreement calls for more support for the Libyan coast guard and the “humanitarian repatriation” of migrants, with a possible economic deal in the pipeline.
Although the EU already has a military presence in international waters off Libya, moving inside its maritime border would have a bigger impact on catching smugglers attempting to cross the sea.
Sources close to the European Council said EU sea patrols off Libya will not be extended into Libyan territorial waters, which is why the bloc will seek cooperation with the Libyan coastguard. The EU wants to pump money into Libya to shut down the central Mediterranean migrant route.
EU leaders are convinced that breaking smuggling rings to curb migrants’ dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean “is the only way to stop people dying in the desert and at sea, and this is also the only way to gain control over migration in Europe”.
The Malta plan is trying to replicate with Libya the agreement reached with Turkey last year, which last year halted an influx of refugees that had brought a million migrants into Germany via Greece. On the Eastern Mediterranean route, while pressures remain, arrivals in the last four months of 2016 were down 98% year-on-year.
But Libya is not Turkey and getting a fully-fledged migration deal with Libya is difficult.
Speaking to journalists, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the Libyan government does not have the necessary stability to work together and that more needs to be done to involve North African and sub-Saharan neighbouring countries.
“We have achieved progress. We are moving in the right direction,” said Muscat in a wide-ranging interview with EURACTIV. But he stressed that he “will not abandon my aim, and I think that the replication of the Turkey agreement with North African countries, breaking the business model of the smugglers, should remain a firm goal of any realistic and sustainable migration policy.
Human rights groups have warned Libya remains unsafe and the rights of asylum seekers returned to the country cannot be guaranteed.
According to Amnesty International, the EU naval operations Sophia and Triton would in practice delegate search and rescue of refugees and migrants by sharing information about the location of the migrant and refugee boats to the Libyan Coast Guard, facilitating their interception and return to Libya.
“The proposal to pull back EU naval operations from search and rescue activities and encourage – and indirectly fund – the Libyan coast guard to plug the gap, is a thinly veiled plan to prevent refugees and migrants reaching Europe. It will trap tens of thousands of people in conflict ravaged country and expose them to the risk of torture and exploitation. This plan is just the latest, but perhaps the most callous indicator of European leaders turning their back on refugees,” said Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office.
A group of United Nations human rights experts also warned that the EU against supporting a system in which migrants are pushed back to places where they may be at risk of torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Europe cannot view Libya only through the lens of migration. It needs to stabilise the country, brokering a compromise between different factions. As violence increases and humanitarian conditions worsen, time is running out, said Luigi Scazzieri, a fellow at the Centre for European Reform.