EU needs Turkish-style migration deal on Libya, says Maltese PM
BRUSSELS – ReutersThe European Union needs to reach a deal on curbing the flow of migrants trying to sail on smugglers’ boats from Libya to Italy, the prime minister of Malta, holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, said on Jan. 18.
Joseph Muscat said the new measures should have the same impact as an agreement struck with Turkey last year that cut the number of migrants and refugees reaching Europe from Turkish shores to below 390,000 from well over a million in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The treacherous voyage from North Africa to Italy is now the favored route. The IOM says more than 5,000 people died or went missing while crossing the Mediterranean last year, and at least 219 drowned in the first two weeks of this year alone.
“There is no doubt that unless the essence of the Turkey deal is replicated in the central Mediterranean, Europe will face a major migration crisis,” Muscat told European lawmakers.
As current EU president, Malta will host a top-level meeting of the bloc’s leaders - including British Prime Minister Theresa May - on Feb. 3 to agree a plan for averting a spring influx of people embarking from Libya.
Muscat, whose tiny island nation lies between Italy and Libya, said the priority was “breaking the business model of the criminal gangs making millions of euros out of this inhumane business.”
Replicating the exact Turkish deal is impossible with Libya, where lawlessness has reigned since the country’s long-standing, strongman leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in 2011. This has allowed people smugglers to operate with impunity.
While Libya now has a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, it is weak and does not control its territory.
But diplomats in Brussels said migrants could be screened before leaving Libya, in camps run with EU funding by the IOM or the United Nations refugee agency. Muscat said the EU could then give safe passage for recognized asylum seekers.
Another key difference between Libya and Turkey is that those who risk the much shorter journey to the Greek islands in the Aegean are mostly Syrians who are fleeing a war and hence have strong chances for asylum in Europe.
For the Libya-Italy route, it is mostly economic migrants from impoverished sub-Saharan Africa who seek to get to much-wealthier Europe. Since they are not fleeing an immediate threat to their lives, EU states are not willing to take them in.
Turkey agreed to take back every migrants, who were refused asylum, after March 20, 2016, in exchange for the same amount of Syrian refugees from Turkish camps to be replaced in Europe.
Turkey was also promised a total of 6 milion euros in order to be used for Syrian refugees in the country, while accelerated membership talks and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens inside the EU’s Schengen zone on grounds Turkey meets the necessary criteria were also agreed upon.