European Union leaders placed a bet on Libya’s fragile government to help them prevent a new wave of African migrants this spring, offering Tripoli 200 million euros and help to beef up its frontier controls.
Meeting in Malta – in the sea lane to Italy where more than 4,500 people drowned last year – the leaders addressed legal and moral concerns about having Libyan coastguards force people ashore by pledging to improve conditions in migrant camps there.
Aid groups, however, accused the EU, whose leaders are under popular pressure to be seen to be controlling immigration, of abandoning humanitarian values and misrepresenting conditions in Libya, where the U.N.-backed government of Fayez Seraj has only a shaky and partial hold on the sprawling desert nation.
Medecins Sans Frontieres, which works in camps there, said: “Libya is not a safe place and blocking people in the country or returning them to Libya makes a mockery of the EU’s so-called fundamental values of human dignity and rule of law.”
The chaos in Libya has thwarted any hope of a quick fix in the way that a controversial EU deal with Turkey a year ago led to a virtual halt to a migrant route to Germany via Greece along which a million asylum-seekers travelled in 2015.
On Thursday, Seraj signed an agreement with Italy, which offered 200 million euros ($215 million) of its own. Rome fears new arrivals this spring, following a record 181,000 irregular immigrants last year, would put pressure on services and risk a popular backlash – especially since its EU neighbours are no longer letting most migrants travel north out of Italy.
Many EU governments are sceptical that the latest measures can have much effect on migration. One senior diplomat called it a “long shot”. Several said the declaration was intended partly to appease Italian demands that the Union be seen to be acting.
Longer term, Europeans are placing hopes in using their aid muscle in Africa to reduce incentives for people to leave and give governments there incentives to take back citizens who fail to win asylum in Europe. Deporting more of those who reach Italy is part of a wider plan to send signals to Africans not to risk the Sahara and Mediterranean in the vain hope of a better life.