Plan to curb migrants from Libya backed by EU leaders

Malta summit produces accord under which Libya will be funded to halt flow to Italy

European Union leaders have backed a plan to curb the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, hoping to replicate the success of a deal with Turkey in reducing numbers entering the EU through the Western Balkans. At a meeting in Malta on Friday, the leaders endorsed an Italian-led plan to give the Libyan government money, training and equipment to choke off the people-smuggling route which brought more than 180,000 people across the Mediterranean last year.

“We are determined to take additional action to significantly reduce migratory flows along the central Mediterranean route and break the business model of smugglers, while remaining vigilant about the eastern Mediterranean as well as other routes,” the leaders said in a joint statement.

An EU agreement with Turkey which came into effect last year, under which most migrants are returned from Greece to Turkey, has reduced migration through the Western Balkans by 98 per cent. Replicating that success on the central Mediterranean route is complicated by the fact that Libya's UN-backed government is struggling to assert its authority throughout the country, which descended into chaos after a military intervention led by France, Britain and the US led to the overthrow of Muammar Gadafy in 2011.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said EU leaders had learned lessons from the migration crisis of 2014-2015, when her country accepted almost a million migrants. "You have to remember how many people perished in the Mediterranean Sea," she said.


Rescued from sea

More than 4500 people have died trying to make the crossing from Libya to Italy and tens of thousands more have been rescued by European naval services, including Ireland’s, which alone rescued more than 15,000.

The plan approved on Friday will see the EU offer training, equipment and support to the Libyan national coast guard and other relevant agencies. There will be funding for the development of local communities in Libya, especially in coastal areas and at Libyan land borders on the migratory routes, and for information campaigns to discourage migrants from sub-Saharan Africa from seeking to cross the Mediterranean.

“A key element of a sustainable migration policy is to ensure effective control of our external border and stem illegal flows into the EU,” the leaders said in their joint statement.

Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat, who hosted Friday's summit, hailed as a breakthrough the fact the leaders' discussion of migration had gone so smoothly. "This is the first time in quite a number of months that on such a controversial subject the European Union and all member states have managed to achieve important progress and unity," he said.

Different migrants

The Taoiseach agreed that the mood during the discussion was positive and he highlighted the difference in nature between migrants who passed through Libya and those who came through Turkey.

"Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian prime minister, made the point that of the 180,000 that had travelled last year to Italy, none of these were Libyans. So Libya is a country of transit and these are all economic migrants, which is a very different proposition from thousands and thousands of refugees," he said.

As NGOs gave the EU plan a cool welcome, Luca Visentini, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, dismissed it as a fanciful exercise. "The EU has decided to pay Libya, with a government that controls only a part of the country, to keep refugees and migrants out of Europe. To make matters worse they are paying for this out of development funds. It would be like Trump getting Mexico to pay for the border wall, except the EU has come up with a way to do it," he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times