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 chaotic 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 is due to unveil new proposals to tackle the issue today (25 January), before ministers address it at talks in Malta at the end of the week.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose country is using its six-month EU Presidency 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 the east of the country as it seeks to end years of lawlessness following the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Meanwhile the EU’s naval mission, 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,” one EU source said. “They abandon people on rickety boats before the international waters and then let them drift.”
‘No reliable partner’
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 embarkation 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 think tank Carnegie Europe, told AFP.
The lack of a reliable interlocutor will likely force the EU to focus to try to work with countries through which migrants travel north, other 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.
The EU’s successful cooperation on returns with Niger, a transit country, and the International Organisation for Migration has led to calls for Brussels to strike similar deals with Mali, Chad, Nigeria and Sudan.
The EU already has deals with Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Ethiopia to stop people leaving for Europe in the first place, sealed at a summit in Malta in 2015.
But despite European pressure, the African countries are balking at cooperation with Europe over returns.
Lehne said the EU approach fails to recognise the fact that “migration is a positive thing” for African countries which receive remittances from workers abroad and get “rid of people who could politically destabilise the country”.
Yves Pascouau, director of the European Policy Centre, said the EU should propose “legal channels of migration” in return for cooperation but this is unlikely given rising populist opposition to migration in Europe.