By Tony Barber
Almost unnoticed beyond the sea that claimed their lives, 246 migrants and refugees died in the first 25 days of January trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
This estimate is from the International Organisation for Migration, which says that 210 people died in the equivalent period of 2016.
Since the start of the decade, more than 13,000 migrants have died along the central Mediterranean route alone. Not for nothing is the sea known as the world’s deadliest maritime route for migrants.
EU leaders — minus Britain, which is on its way out of the bloc — will gather in Malta on Friday to make another stab at tackling this emergency. Just under a year ago, they cut a deal with Turkey that achieved the short-term political purpose of slashing the vast numbers of migrants pouring into south-eastern Europe. But the prospects for similar progress, if such it can be called, in the central Mediterranean are not so good.
The core of the problem is the collapse of the Libyan state after the 2011 revolution and western military intervention that overthrew Muammer Gaddafi, the late dictator.
EU governments know that Libya’s breakdown, and the different dynamics of irregular African migration, make a Turkey-type deal unrealistic. However, the EU bravely contends that it has a Libyan partner, in the shape of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, which will assist its efforts to stem the flow of migrants.
Sad to say, this co-operation is largely a figment of the EU’s imagination.
In the first place, Libya’s implosion has expanded opportunities for migrant traffickers. Of the 181,000 migrants who crossed the central Mediterranean last year, almost 90 per cent set out from Libya’s coast. Many migrants reach the coast after gruelling journeys through the Libyan Desert from northern Niger.
The government in Tripoli has practically no control over southern Libya. Entire communities in this area, and over the border in Niger, depend on migrant-smuggling for their livelihoods. Martin Kobler, the German diplomat who heads the UN support mission in Libya, calls the country a “human marketplace” for migrants.
The traffickers shuttle Eritreans, Nigerians and other Africans to the Libyan coast, selling them space on inflatable dinghies and other flimsy crafts. Some vessels make it to Italy’s shores.
The most unseaworthy capsize in the Mediterranean. Over the past three years, half a million boat people have arrived in Italy. According to Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s migration commissioner, another 300,000 are presently waiting in northern Libya for the right moment to attempt the crossing.
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Should they set foot on Italian soil, they will swiftly discover that the EU has no agreed plan for their distribution around Europe or return to their homelands. They may also overhear Italian officials complaining that the rest of Europe has cynically left Italy to cope with the emergency on its own.
Even worse for Europe is Libya’s disintegration into a cluster of chaotic internal conflicts. The vacuum of state authority is sucking in foreign powers, threatening to make a complete irrelevance of the EU’s migration policy in Libya.
The key figure is Khalifa Haftar, a renegade army general whose stronghold is eastern Libya. He has the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, increasingly, Russia. He also has contacts with France.
Mr Haftar depicts himself as north Africa’s most resolute opponent of Islamist extremism, a stance that endears him to the Kremlin and may appeal to the Trump administration.
Should Washington switch its support from the government in Tripoli, the EU will risk being a bystander in Libya’s troubles, doomed to import instability from a region where its self-proclaimed mission is to export stability.
Tony Barber – Europe Editor and Associate Editor, Financial Times