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Juncker: Migrants found 'hell' in Libya

Max Hofmann
November 28, 2017

The European Union must not remain silent in the face of slave markets in Libya, says EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker. Speaking with DW, Juncker reiterated his call for more legal migration routes to the EU.

Jean-Claude Juncker
Image: DW/D.Pundy

Jean-Claude Juncker at DW

The 5th EU-Africa Summit is taking place in Abidjan, Ivory Coast this week, where EU and African leaders will take on the thorny issue of migration from Africa to Europe. Every month, thousands of people try to cross the Mediterranean and get into the European Union. But the EU, together with transit country Libya and other African countries of origin, has been trying to shut down this dangerous route. Ahead of the summit, DW's Max Hofmann spoke with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels.

DW: You've said Africans and Europeans should be equals. But now we have a situation in Libya where people are apparently being sold as slaves. Shouldn't Europe be doing more to stop this?

Jean-Claude Juncker: Europe cannot be silent in the face of this outrageous problem, which dates back to another century. Africa is all too familiar with the issue of slavery. I'm appalled by the information that's reaching me from Africa. We know about Libya's problems: Libya is not a state like any other. So it is neither conceivable, nor acceptable, for Europe to close its eyes to this tragedy, a daily tragedy for so many people — children, women, men — in Libya. I had already wanted us to address this problem at a previous European Council meeting. I can't sleep easy when I think about what's happening to those people who went to Libya to try and improve their lives, only to find themselves in hell.

Read more

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Were you shocked? It was known that the situation in Libya was very difficult, but the extent of it — Africans being auctioned off as slaves — were you shocked?

Yes, I was very shocked. I didn't know until two months ago the full extent of the problem. It's become a constant, urgent situation. No — although Europe has a proper relationship with Libya, it cannot be silent. And it will not be silent.

But isn't it also a direct result of the fact that migration controls in the Mediterranean have been reinforced — that it's become more difficult for Africans to get to Europe?

The controls have been improved — they needed to be improved. But the fact that there are a growing number of refugees on Libyan territory who are no longer able to get to Europe across the Mediterranean is not reason enough to rape, kill and rob people in the camps — which are like prison camps, not refugee camps.

Shouldn't we rather be finding legal ways for people to migrate to Europe in order to alleviate these problems in Libya?

Since 2014, and during the campaign for the European elections, and afterward, too, in my address to the European Parliament, I have always argued in favor of legal migration. I believe that if we don't offer legal ways of emigrating to Europe, and immigrating within Europe, we will be lost. If those who come — who are, generally speaking, the poor and needy — are no longer able to enter the house of Europe through the front door, they'll keep making their way in through the back windows. We need to create legal ways to come to Europe, and the Commission has already made suggestions. Europe will clearly need immigration in the coming decades, so we have to provide those who want to come, and are able to come, and whose situation makes it possible for them to come, with legal paths to get to Europe.

Read more: UN — EU cooperation with Libya has led to 'unimaginable horrors' for migrants

The risks of irregular migration

Why has there been so much resistance? Why have you not succeeded in implementing this idea?

We've told the member states of their responsibility, and we will see what the member states do about it. The member states, in their wisdom, don't always follow the Commission's proposals. In 2001, the Commission proposed a joint system to protect the external borders. The member states rejected it then, only to demand it now. And now we've implemented these joint controls of the external borders. When it comes to resolving the great challenges of our age, we have to leave it to the imagination of those who are governing the member states and nations. And immigration and migration is a great challenge of our age. It's not just about preparing for the future; we should have prepared for the present yesterday.

Is fear of migration, as well as fear of populism, proving the death of reason among member states?

The populists themselves are dangerous, but they are far more dangerous when the traditional, classic parties adopt their harmful proposals. If the traditional parties follow the populists, they become populist themselves, which is a phenomenon we are already seeing in some EU countries. No, we should not be afraid of the populists; we should embrace those they are fighting.

That's what should happen, but it's not what is happening. Isn't fear overcoming reason with regard to immigration?

No — there are the Commission's proposals, which also have the backing of the European Parliament. Now it's up to the member states to follow the path of wisdom.

You've called for more solidarity with Africa, not just solidarity among Europeans. Is this solidarity more than just financial?

Yes, but it's a solidarity that must touch on all areas of international life. Africa must become aware of the fact that it is already, today, a big international player. Europe must not distance itself from Africa's universal ambitions. Africa is not a continent that will become part of our history tomorrow. Africa has always been a part of history. Certain Europeans just didn't see it that way.

Jean-Claude Juncker has been president of the European Commission since 2014. Previously, he was prime minister of his home country, Luxembourg, from 1995 to 2013. He was also head of the Eurogroup until 2013.

Max Hofmann conducted the interview.