ROME: Interior ministers mainly from the central Mediterranean region met in Rome on Monday to ramp up efforts to curb migration from Libya amid a sharp rise in the number of people trying to cross to Europe.
One year after a controversial deal with Turkey to stop migrants setting out across the Aegean Sea for Greece, the European Union is seeking to reach a similar accord with conflict-hit Libya, despite fierce opposition from human rights campaigners.
Just this past weekend more than 3,300 people were rescued from unseaworthy vessels off the north African country, bringing the number of arrivals in Italy to nearly 20,000 so far in 2017 − a significant increase on previous years.
Interior ministers from Algeria, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Libya, Malta, Slovenia, Switzerland and Tunisia took part in the meeting, along with the European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos.
The group released a declaration of intent which limited itself to promising increased coordination and information sharing in a bid to tackle the root causes of migration, as well as combat smuggling and strengthen borders.
“The aim is to govern migratory movements” rather than be governed by them, said Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti.
Libya’s UN-backed unity government has requested 800 million euros ($860 million) worth of equipment to help patrol its coast and territorial waters, including radars, boats, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, according to Italy’s Corriere della Sera daily.
There is also talk of a Libya-based operational centre to coordinate rescues in international waters off the North African coast, relieving the burden on Rome, which has been forced to monitor and intervene well beyond its established maritime surveillance zone. Experts say some of the equipment requested by Libya would fall foul of a UN embargo on arms imports into the country.
France’s interior minister, Bruno Le Roux, stressed the importance of making sure the Libyan coastguard lives up to its EU training.
Some 90 members of the coastguard are currently completing skills training under the EU, and Italy is preparing to return 10 coastguard boats to Libya that it seized in 2011.
They are expected to be operational by the end of April or in early May, Minniti said.
The idea is to intercept migrants before they reach international waters and take them to camps in Libya where their human rights would be protected − “a big step forward” from current conditions in the country’s migrant holding camps, Minniti said.
But critics warn against planned repatriations of asylum seekers to Libya, a country where allegations of torture, rape and murder are rife.
Those picked up off Libya and not entitled to international protection would be returned to their countries of origin, Minniti said, without saying what would happen to those who are eligible for asylum, subsidiary protection or humanitarian protection.
Some 40 per cent of those who seek asylum in Italy are granted some sort of leave to remain.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s defence minister inaugurated a small military base on Monday on the country’s southern border for soldiers patrolling to prevent the entry of migrants.
Defence Minister Istvan Simicsko said that base built with the assistance of Austrian soldiers would provide “worthy” conditions for the 150 troops to be stationed there.
“The defense of the border..
.so hundreds of thousands won’t march across the country, deserves total respect,” Simicsko told the soldiers.”Our most important common interest is the protection of the Hungarian citizens, our family members and civilians.”
The Hercegszanto complex, about 220 kilometers south of Budapest, was constructed from 90 containers and is that last of four bases built since January for soldiers patrolling the Serbian border in Bacs-Kiskun county.
The bases will significantly cut soldiers’ commute to the border zone for the patrols carried out jointly with police “border hunters,” Simicsko said.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban said last week that a new fence being built on the Serbian border equipped with surveillance tools would withstand even a major surge of migrants, which Hungary is anticipating this year partly because of the deteriorating deal between the European Union and Turkey to prevent migrants from reaching Greece.
Agence France-Press/Associated Press