Up to 1 million people could cross from Libya to Italy in the latest wave of migrants into Europe. Since the Balkan route was restricted in March, the hazardous Libya-Italy route may become the preferred entry channel.
A military advisor for the United Nations said Wednesday that most Europe-bound migrants had passed through the Balkans in 2015 between Turkey and Germany.
"In Libya there are a million potential migrants," General Paolo Serra, a military advisor for UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler, told a committee at the Italian parliament, the ANSA news agency reported.
In March EU leaders agreed a 6-billion-euro ($6.7-billion) deal with Turkey aimed to shutting down the route across the Aegean from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands.
However, concerns are growing that the plan - which includes an agreement to send back all arrivals - will drive people to make the more treacherous crossing from north Africa instead.
Helping Libya fix its economy would stave off the risk of a mass exodus from the country, Serra said, adding that oil production in the resource-rich North African nation had fallen from 1.8 million to 300,000 barrels a day.
Libya has been mired in a political and security crisis following the 2011 NATO-backed overthrow of leader Moammar Gaddafi.
In an effort to stabilize the country, a UN-backed unity government earlier this month gained the support of key institutions in the capital Tripoli, including the General National Congress (GNC), the parliamentary assembly installed by the militia groups that gained control of the Libyan capital in 2014.
The Government of National Accord (GNA) is set to be a one-year interim government as stipulated by a UN agreement signed by Libyan factions in December to end a political crisis that has hit the country since a NATO-backed 2011 overthrow of former leader Moammar Gaddafi.
However, the country still has very porous borders and many migrants and refugees from other countries have used Libyan terriitory to make the relatively more treacherous 1,800 kilometer (1,000 mile) crossing to southern Italy.
The International Organization for Migration reports that since the start of 2014, over 6,100 have died on the crossing, or about one for every 54 migrants who makes it. About 800 people drowned in a single sinking off the Italian island of Lampedusa last April.
At the same time, 1,161 people - one for every 893 successful crossings - are known to have died on the Aegean route from Turkey to Greece.
EU chiefs have warned that an extra 450,000 migrants could attempt to reach Europe this summer as a result of the crisis in Libya.
"Once, people coming from other African countries would stop in Libya, where they would find work. Now there is a huge humanitarian crisis and it is difficult to control movements from sub-Saharan Africa," Serra said.
"Since the start of the week, more than 4,000 migrants have been rescued between Libya and Sicily, bringing the total sea migration into Italy since January 1 to around 24,000. This is roughly double the figure recorded in the same period of 2015," he added.
Migrant men try to remove barbed wire during a protest with Macedonian police at the fence at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, Wednesday, April 13
Syrian refugees drop off
Italian Interior Ministry sources told Italian news agency ANSA Tuesday that very few migrants from war-torn Syria had arrived this year.
Human traffickers may have decided to ship more people to Italy ahead of the establishment of a national unity government in Tripoli, which may lead to stricter border controls, the sources added.
"The numbers of would-be migrants in Libya are alarming," European Union President Donald Tusk told the European Parliament this week. "This means that we must be prepared to help and show solidarity to Malta and Italy, should they request it," he said.
jbh/kms (dpa, ANSA)