The interior ministers of Germany and Italy are urging the European Union to set up a mission along Libya's border with Niger in a bid to stop mainly African migrants from reaching Europe.
In a letter to the European Commission, the ministers say that international efforts so far to curb the migrant flow have proven insufficient. According to the United Nations, more than 43,000 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have reached European shores this year from Libya and a surge in migrant crossings is expected this spring and summer.
Nearly 1,200 migrants have died at sea trying to cross the Mediterranean.
In their letter, which was first reported by the German weekly newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the ministers, Thomas de Maizière and Marco Minniti, said they "are convinced that we all must do more" to “prevent that hundreds of thousands of people once again risk their lives in Libya and on the Mediterranean Sea in the hands of smugglers.”
They called for the setting up of "an EU mission at the border between Libya and Niger as soon as possible," which could include mobile patrols and border posts as well as vetting of asylum-seekers. They also want for the EU to help support economic growth and development in communities along the border. "The goal is as quickly as possible to build up an EU mission on the border between Libya and Niger" to stop migrants entering war-torn Libya.
Italy has borne the brunt of the migration crisis since Europe concluded a deal with Turkey to stem the movement of migrants and war refugees into EU countries. European leaders are worried about a possible rush of newcomers, increasing the pressure on southern European states, such as Italy and Malta, but also roiling further politics on the continent and fueling anti-immigrant and far-right sentiment.
A scheme to relocate asylum-seekers continues to face stiff opposition from central European countries, especially Hungary and Slovakia.
The ministers’ request to the European Commission envisages shifting the EU’s external border in effect to North Africa. It coincides with a warning from U.N. migration officials that hundreds of migrants along sub-Saharan migration routes are being traded openly in ‘slave markets’ as well as in Libya. The office of the IOM in Niger has reported: "Sub-Saharan migrants were being sold and bought by Libyans, with the support of Ghanaians and Nigerians who work for them."
How enthusiastic EU member states will be to the request to set up a mission along the Libya-Niger border will partly be colored by the reaction of European military officials, say analysts.
EU navies alongside the Italian navy have been running a joint mission called Operation Sophia at sea, intercepting smugglers’ boats and picking up migrants to transfer them to centers in Italy. Critics of the operation say the humanitarian rescue mission is a ‘pull factor’ encouraging migrants to make the journey.
EU plans proposed in 2015 for EU military forces to be more proactive, including mounting coastal raids to destroy traffickers’ boats, fell to the wayside.
European defense chiefs were fearful of “mission’ creep” and of being drawn into the conflict in Libya pitting rival governments and militias against each other. In a confidential memo, they warned their political superiors that plans to stop migrant-smuggling boats crossing the Mediterranean would lead inevitably to land operations in Libya and possible clashes with the Islamic State’s affiliate in the North African state. The memo counseling caution was leaked to WikiLeaks.
The International Organization for Migration estimated that more than a quarter-of-a-million migrants crossed the Libya-Niger border last year. The EU already has five migrant centers located in Niger, part of an effort to vet asylum-seekers and discourage migrants from risking the crossing into Libya and the Mediterranean and putting their lives into the hands of traffickers.
One of the three governments vying for control of Libya, the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord, has said it is willing to cooperate with the Europeans, but it has no reliable forces of its own and relies on the volatile backing of some militias whose loyalty could shift unpredictably.
The GNA’s vice president told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Sunday, "the difficult economic situation in that [border] region pushes lots of young people to work for the traffickers."
On Monday, Italian police chief Franco Gabrielli announced that ships involved in the rescue of asylum-seekers in the Mediterranean won’t be allowed to dock at any port on the island of Sicily until after a G7 summit this month in the town of Taormina. He said the move was designed to ease the burden on police and security agencies for the two-day summit, which begins May 26.