The European Union is determined to keep preventing migrants setting off from the coast of Libya, interior ministers said, despite criticism from rights advocates who say the strategy aggravates human suffering.
After more than two years of struggling to stem the flow of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the European Union is cautiously hopeful it is finally in control.
A 2016 deal with Turkey effectively closed one major migratory route and this year Italy has led EU efforts to curb sea crossings from Libya, supplying money, equipment and training for Libya’s border and coast guard and striking deals with local groups in control on the ground in a country still largely lawless after the 2011 death of Muammar Gaddafi.
Mediterranean crossings dropped from almost 28,000 people in June to less than 10,000 in August, according to UN data. Sources told Reuters a new armed group on Libya’s coast was stopping migrant boats from leaving.
Human rights groups decry the EU support for Libya Prime Minister Fayez Seraj and allied militias who run migrant detention centres compared to concentration camps.
A top UN human rights official said the EU strategy was “thin on protection of human rights of migrants inside Libya and on the boats and silent on the urgent need for alternatives to arbitrary detention of vulnerable people.”
To offset that, the bloc has stepped up financing for UN agencies for migration (IOM) and refugees (UNHCR) to improve conditions for migrants inside Libya. But it is not changing tack on trying to keep them there.
“If we look at the flows of migrants across the Mediterranean a few months ago and now, the decrease in illegal migration has been big,” Estonia’s Interior Minister Andres Anvelt said ahead of talks in Brussels with his EU peers.
“We’ll have a discussion about how to have this success story going on.”
“TRUST IN ITALY”
Germany’s Thomas de Maiziere told reporters: “I‘m happy the number of people sent across the Mediterranean by smugglers to Italy has fallen in the last two months … These developments need to be carried on.”
“We need to work to ensure people simply do not make the trip across the desert to Libya. The neighbourhood policy with Africa is important for a sustainable decline in migrants coming to Italy.”
After struggling to come up with a strategy on Libya, the EU has increasingly let Italy, Libya’s former colonial power, take the lead.
Interior Minister Marco Minniti led the effort, curbing sea operations of non-governmental aid groups and striking deals with Libyan mayors to fight people-trafficking, among others.
Rome also played a central role in training the Libyan coast guard, accused of abuses, including shooting at aid workers trying to rescue migrants.
The EU denied any of its funding goes to militia in Sabratha, which has often prevented migrants from departing for Europe by locking them up.
But a senior EU diplomat said the EU’s strategy was complex.
“It is hard to know exactly what is going on in Libya. We have increasingly entrusted Italy with doing the job there, we give them money. There would never be any proof of EU money going directly to some armed group somewhere,” the person said.
“Some methods may seem controversial. But there is also preventing loss of life at the sea and political stability in Italy to consider. We shouldn’t be too judgmental.”