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Europe

EU ministers reject Italian request for help with feared Libyan 'exodus'

In the wake of Tunisian migration to Italian territory, Italy has voiced fears more refugees will flee unrest in Libya. But EU ministers have turned down a request to take in Libyan migrants if they reach Europe.

A woman fleeing Libya

Reports so far say most refugees from Libya have been Tunisian

Interior ministers from the European Union's 27 member countries on Thursday rejected Italian pleas for help in dealing with a massive wave of refugees that Italy fears could result from unrest in Libya.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told his EU counterparts in Brussels up to 1.5 million refugees could flee Libya. Calling the feared movement "an invasion […] that would bring any country to its knees," Maroni asked other EU countries to agree to take in Libyan refugees and to set up a 100-million-euro ($138 million) fund to help Italy and other Mediterranean countries deal with the migrants if they arrive.

"What's happening in the Mediterranean is a problem for Europe and the world," Maroni said. "We have never seen an emergency of this scale."

'No invasion yet'

However, other ministers at the meeting said migrants have not left Libya for Europe yet, and refused to promise support.

"So far there have been no streams of immigrants," German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said. "We shouldn't talk them into existence."

Maroni

Maroni adopted an urgent tone towards his counterparts

Belgium's state secretary for asylum, Melchior Wathelet, shared de Maiziere's view, saying "We should not get involved in scaremongering and playing with silly numbers."

Italy is currently struggling to deal with an estimated 5,200 refugees who have come from Tunisia to the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa since a democratic uprising ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last month.

While the EU granted Italy emergency funds to deal with the migrants from Tunisia, Germany rejected a proposal that Tunisian refugees be automatically apportioned to other EU nations.

Start of an exodus?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said there have been no reports of refugees leaving Libya for Europe. But Antonio Guterres called on the EU to make plans in case migrants do start pouring in.

The International Organization for Migration, which promotes humane migration, reported that people in Libya have begun fleeing to the neighboring countries by on land. Jemini Pandya, a spokesperson for the organization, told the Reuters news agency at least 30,000 people, most of them foreigners, have left Libya for Egypt and Tunisia. Most of them were Tunisian.

Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Brussels, Christoph Hasselbach, said Thursday's EU meeting marked a second failure in the bloc's handling of the Libyan crisis, in which protesters have tried to topple longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi following similar movements in Egypt and Tunisia. Hasselbach said after failing to agree on sanctions against Gadhafi's government, the EU has now failed to decide on how to deal with refugees.

Author: Shant Shahrigian (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton

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