Analysis: Attempts to curb Libya-EU migration risk failure

Pressure on Libya to stem a wave of illegal migration from its shores may come to little as the north African country has become a magnet for poor Africans stopping off on their way to Europe.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says up to 1.5 million irregular migrants are working in Libya, where service industries are growing and building sites springing up as the country emerges from years of sanctions.
Reuters adds many of them see Libya as a temporary home where they can save up for onward passage by boat to Europe in the hope of bigger wages that can lift their families out of poverty.
Migrant advocacy groups estimate that around 100 000 migrants cross to Italy each year.
Some of the flimsy, overloaded boats are spotted by coastguards and their passengers sent to overcrowded reception centres. The least fortunate never arrive.
More than 200 migrants were feared drowned in late March after their boat began leaking and capsized in strong winds.
Aid organisations hope similar incidents can be avoided from next month when Italy and Libya begin joint sea patrols. And European governments are hoping improving ties with
Libya will prompt the Tripoli government to tighten surveillance of its immigrant population.
Analysts say those aspirations are unrealistic — Libya has 4300km of frontier to patrol, much of it bordering vast, lawless desert regions of Niger and Mali.
To the north lies 1700km of craggy and often deserted Mediterranean coastline ideal for launching migrant boats undetected.
“Even the West with all its infrastructure and capability struggles to control migrants,” said analyst Sami Zaptia, head of Tripoli-based consultancy Know Libya. “For the migrants it is a question of slowly dying or coming to Libya. I don’t know how Libya would be able to shut them out completely.”
Libya is still absorbing labour as it pours energy revenues into replacing worn out infrastructure and builds homes, schools, airports and hospitals.
The central bank said last month it expected the non-oil economy to grow 6-8 percent this year, showing the country’s resilience in the face of the global economic crisis.
Crowds of Guineans, Ivorians, Congolese and Nigerians wait near construction sites in the capital with their tools in the hope of being hired.
Most of the migrants do not speak Arabic but that is no obstacle to shifting rubble, washing cars, painting walls, mixing concrete and sweeping pavements.
Four months of such work brings them the equivalent of one year’s wages in Gambia, according to accounts from migrants gathered by the IOM.
Lack of will?
Libya has pushed for normal relations with European governments since sanctions ended but analysts say leader Muammar Gaddafi may hesitate to crack down on migrants.
Gaddafi has built an image as a champion of downtrodden Africans in the face of Western power and called for a United States of Africa to fight poverty and resolve conflicts.
When elected as head of the African Union in February, he said Europe must help Africa offer better opportunities to its young people if it really wants to curb illegal migration.
Last year he accused European states of killing hundreds of them by deliberately sinking their boats.
A plan in early 2008 to oblige foreign workers without valid work papers to leave Libya has come to little, migrant advocacy groups say, and expulsions would sit uneasily with Gaddafi’s image as the champion of Africans.
“Libya has been pushing the African case for some time,” said Mustafa Fetouri, a Tripoli-based political analyst and university professor. “We have said to Africans: ‘This (Libya) is your home, your country, and Africa is prosperous’. This works like a magnet for Africans.”
Italy’s right-wing government has made cracking down on illegal immigration a top priority and is hoping for more cooperation from Libya after Rome agreed last year to pay $5 billion in compensation for colonial misdeeds during its 1911-1943 rule of the country.
But migration has proved a useful playing card for Tripoli in the past that it may still be unwilling to surrender.
“Mr. Gaddafi has rightly not shied away from using migration as a bargaining chip,” said Zaptia. “Morally he feels that migration from Africa to Europe is the least the West can do for all the years of colonising Africa.”
Talks aimed at achieving closer ties with the European Union have had a slow start as the EU resists Libya’s call for an easing of visa restrictions for its nationals, said Fetouri.
“The Libyans are not doing all they can to reduce illegal migration numbers as they want something to be paid back by the EU and not much has materialised yet,” he said. “I’m not sure the Libyans feel under enormous pressure.”