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Libyans Doubtful About Europe's Plan to Block 'People Smugglers'

Migrants wait to be disembarked from the Irish Navy ship P31 L.E. Eithne at the Catania harbor, Italy, June 16, 2015.

Libyans say a European Union plan to mount a still-to-be-defined military intervention against the people smugglers behind the immigration crisis roiling Europe will not stop sub-Saharan Africans from trying to cross the Mediterranean. They say only Western economic development assistance in the migrants’ source countries will help solve the problem in the long-term.

Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, announced this week he will ask the European Union to set up migrant processing camps in Libya to help abate the migration crisis roiling his country and impacting the whole continent.

Italy is struggling to accommodate a wave of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya, and France, Austria and Switzerland have started to send sub-Saharan migrants back to Italy if they first entered Europe there. Renzi said Europeans must share the burden and migrants should be distributed fairly across the continent.

But the various European plans being discussed, including a still-to-be defined military intervention to disrupt the people-smuggling trade, is prompting derision in Libya and claims the Europeans do not understand the scale or complexity of the migration.

Jamal Zubia is the head of the foreign media department of the Tripoli-based government, one of two governments locked in a power struggle in Libya.

“They do not want to understand this. When they say, 'We are going to hit the infrastructure,' what infrastructure do we have? [They will hit] These fishing boats, or they will hit rocks where the fishing boats are,” said Zubia.

The European Union has asked the U.N. Security Council to endorse a military mission to combat people-smugglers. Neither the government in Tripoli nor the internationally recognized government that fled the Libyan capital last summer and is now based in the country’s east are prepared to give consent.

In 2014, an estimated 170,000 people crossed the Mediterranean from Libya. European officials fear the number this year could climb much higher without robust interdiction.

Altaher Mohammed Makni is a member of the Tripoli government and comes from Libya’s desert south. He said European countries have money and should be helping the migrants’ source countries to develop and invest in projects in sub-Saharan Africa. That would help to deter migrants from leaving, he argued.

But he did think Libya should establish migrant detention centers in the south of the country and not on the coast. Once the migrants reach the seashore it was too late, he said.

But he said one of the biggest challenges was to persuade Libya’s neighbors to facilitate the deportation of migrants from Libya. "The neighboring countries the migrants have passed through must allow us to deport them back through the same route but they block this happening," he said.

Libya is on the verge of bankruptcy after a yearlong civil war and standoff between rival governments, and does not have the money to fly the thousands of migrants back to their home countries.