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EU on Libyan Refugees: 'Prepare for the Worst'

This image taken March 16, 2011 from amateur video and obtained March 17, 2011 shows a plume of smoke rising over the skyline in Ajdabiya, eastern Libya, the last major city between forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and rebel-held Benghazi
This image taken March 16, 2011 from amateur video and obtained March 17, 2011 shows a plume of smoke rising over the skyline in Ajdabiya, eastern Libya, the last major city between forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and rebel-held Benghazi

The European Union is urging member countries to prepare for a possible exodus of refugees from Libya as forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi close in on rebel strongholds.

The EU’s humanitarian aid commissioner said Thursday that Europe must be prepared for the worst.

Kristalina Georgieva says that until now, humanitarian efforts have been geared to repatriate foreign nationals, many of them Asian and African, who have fled Libya en masse.

But she says if Libyans join those leaving the embattled country, they may not have a home to return to.  European nations, she says, may need to accommodate them as permanent refugees.

Many European nations are worried about the situation.  Italy, in particular, has already seen a wave of migrants landing on its tiny southern island of Lampedusa.  It has called for its European neighbors to do more to help it deal with the influx of people.

A British member of the European Parliament, Jean Lambert, says European countries don’t help one another deal with refugees and asylum seekers.  She says they will have to pull together.

"Member states still will not really take their responsibility to assist each other in really practical ways and I think this is tragic because it begins to make you question what is the value of this so-called solidarity," said Lambert.

But she says it is important not to overstate the current threat.

So far most of those who have fled Libya have poured into neighboring countries, not Europe.

Lambert says politicians in Europe may use the perceived ‘exodus’ from Libya for political gain.

"I think a lot of the figures and a lot of the way in which this is being used at the moment is designed more to get people really frightened with a view to more repressive measures as we're discussing certain things on asylum policy, for example, in parliament at the moment," she said.

Judith Sunderland is a Western Europe researcher with the international campaign group Human Rights Watch.  She says it is unclear how many refugees and asylum seekers will enter Italy and how much help European countries will need to give.

"It's a question of numbers I suppose," said Sunderland. "You know, if we're talking about 20,000 to 50,000 people, then I think we're talking about numbers that Italy should probably be able to handle. If it's significantly higher than that, then maybe it will make sense for other European nations to take in some of the migrants and asylum seekers."

But she says there is very little willingness to take people in for resettlement.

The European Commission offered Tripoli up to $70 million last year to help combat irregular migration. So far that money has not been delivered.

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