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Libya's plan to stop migrants questioned

April 27, 2017

EU officials say they doubt whether Libya has a workable plan to prevent migrants leaving its Mediterranean coast for Europe's shores. Tripoli has requested the EU provide new equipment and boats for its coast guard.

Libyen Mittelmeer - Flüchtlinge von Schlauchboot gerettet
Image: Reuters/D. Zammit Lupi

European Union diplomats told the Reuters news agency on Thursday that Libya lacked a clear plan on how to stop the expected and increased migrant flow across the Mediterranean Sea this summer.

Reuters cited a confidential EU assessment that was prepared for EU defense ministers, who met for a second day on Thursday in Malta on security and defense cooperation, with Libya top of the agenda.

On board a refugee rescue ship

Two EU documents warned that the Tripoli government needed a clearer strategy on how to detect and intercept people smugglers, who often carry migrants on unseaworthy boats from the Libyan coast. The smugglers calculate that they will be picked up by rescue ships before reaching Europe.

European governments are increasingly worried that Libya is becoming a major departure point for thousands of migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. Other major routes, including through the Balkans and from Turkey to Greece have either been closed or restricted.

Read: What you need to know about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean

Libya's 'shopping list'

The UN-backed Libyan government has proposed the EU provide equipment, including 130 boats of various types, for its navy and coast guard, according to EU diplomatic sources. Their request includes communications equipment, radar and night vision goggles.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday cited one EU diplomatic source as saying that Libya's request merely amounted to a "shopping list." Another source told AFP the plan was "not at all realistic," given the instability facing Libya's internationally recognized government.

Ahead of Thursday's talks, the EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini said Brussels was keen for Libya to play a greater role in intercepting migrant boats, alongside the bloc's Frontex border patrols.

Germany urges prudence

But Germany's Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen backed a cautious approach before handing Tripoli advanced military equipment and ships.

"The EU has to consider very carefully who to train in Libya and who is loyal at the Libyan coast guard," she said.

The EU's Operation Sophia, launched in 2015, is limited to patrolling in international waters. The EU has pledged to train some 500 Libyans to catch people traffickers - so far around 140 have already completed or are undergoing instruction.

Protection of Libya's coast has been hampered by the existence of Islamist militias and warlords challenging the internationally recognized government following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. 

Chaos in the country and questions over how equipment will be used has raised doubts over handing military hardware to the government.

According to the EU border agency Frontex, so far this year some 28,000 migrants leaving Libya have been intercepted at sea and taken to Italy, 30 percent more than the same period last year.  

cw,mm/sms (AFP, dpa)