European Union ministers have a controversial plan they hope will keep illegal immigrants from Africa out of Europe.
They want to pay for migrant holding camps in Libya or neighboring countries that will be run by the United Nations and aid groups. There, in a supposedly “safe place,” migrants who want to attempt a Mediterranean crossing will be processed before they ever attempt it.
More than 4,500 people drowned in 2016 trying to make the crossing, Al Jazeera reported.
Trafficking on the central Mediterranean route increased in 2016 with more than 180,000 migrants landing in Italy compared with the previous record of 170,100 in 2014, according to AFP.
For those seeking better lives in Europe, the main route for the sea crossing is from Libya to Italy. Human traffickers facilitate the treacherous journey from Libya. The E.U. wants to shut it down and allow only those it considers “genuine refugees” to enter the 28-nation E.U.
The E.U. plan has wide support, but its critics — “a group of leftist European lawmakers,” according to Reuters — say it poses legal and security challenges.
Sending people to refugee camps in Libya would endanger lives in an environment of lawlessness since the 2011 ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, according to critics of the plan. Thy say the new U.N.-backed government in Libya has no control over the territory.
More than a million people flooded the E.U. in 2015, many fleeing the Syrian conflict. The EU has tightened border controls, making it harder for migrants and asylum seekers to enter, Reuters reported.
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The E.U. wants to screen asylum seekers in North Africa before they get to the E.U., and return “economic migrants” to their home countries.
The idea is to send migrants to a safe place without bringing them into Europe, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Thursday.
The Libya plan is similar to aspects of a controversial E.U. aid-for-cooperation deal with Turkey that has dramatically slowed the number of Syrian and other asylum seekers landing in Greece, AFP reported.
But it will be harder to get cooperation with the U.N.-backed Libyan unity government, which is engaged in a power struggle with a rival administration in Eastern Libya.
Most of those taking the Libya-Italy route are considered “economic migrants,” Al Jazeera reported. They’re looking for jobs, not trying to escape prosecution. Economic migrants have no chance of getting asylum in the E.U.
The plan is for the camps in Libya or neighboring countries to be run by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which would screen the migrants and help return those ineligible for asylum to their home countries, Reuters reported:
A group of leftist European lawmakers criticized the plan, saying it was inhumane, cynical and unacceptable.
“Even more refugees will be locked up in North Africa under high risk of torture, rape and other forms of ill treatment,” said German MEP Cornelia Ernst.
German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere said the plan calls for the E.U. to pay for the refugee camps in North Africa so that they are run by international agencies.
“We can then take those deserving protection, and only those, from this safe place to Europe,” he said, according to DW.
“The problem is that you have no reliable partner on the Libyan side,” Stefan Lehne, an analyst with the think tank Carnegie Europe, in an AFP interview:
The E.U. has successful cooperation with Niger, a transit country, on returning migrants, according to AFP. There are calls for similar deals with Mali, Chad, Nigeria and Sudan.
The E.U. already has deals with Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Ethiopia to stop people leaving for Europe in the first place, sealed at a summit in Malta in 2015. But despite European pressure, the African countries are balking at cooperation with Europe over returns.
Lehne said the E.U. approach fails to recognize the fact that “migration is a positive thing” for African countries which receive remittances from workers abroad and get “rid of people who could politically destabilize the country.”