While Muammar Qaddafi, the president of Libya, was clinging to power, Franco Frattini, the foreign minister of Italy, warned that if there were a power vacuum in the north African state, then up to 300,000 Libyans might flee the country.
He warned of the risk of “a civil war in Libya that would have devastating consequences for the potential flow of migrants to Europe, a flow of absolutely epochal dimensions”.
This threat of mass migration – and the accompanying fear that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa might come to Europe through Libya – is complicating the EU’s response to the prospect of Qaddafi’s dictatorship ending.
José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, urged the EU to embrace the changes sweeping through north Africa that have already deposed Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from the presidencies of Egypt and Tunisia respectively.
“We cannot afford to be passive spectators of events,” Barroso said.
“This is an historic moment and we have to be on the right side of history. This is a lifetime opportunity to assist those who are in pursuit of freedom, justice, democracy and human rights. We have the instruments and means to support that fight.”
He said that the Commission would “support the aspirations of the Libyan people”.
But securing the EU’s borders is a pressing concern. The interior ministers of Italy, Malta, Greece, Cyprus, France and Spain met for emergency talks in Rome yesterday.
Member states’ interior ministers are to meet in Brussels today (24 February) and will discuss the threat of large-scale refugee movements. At the request of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, the issue of migration has been added to the leaders’ agenda for their summit of 24-25 March, which will discuss the situation in north Africa.
Ilkka Laitinen, the executive director of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, said yesterday that it had developed scenarios for a large-scale influx of migrants. “That is our job,” he said.
Frontex stepped up patrols in the Mediterranean this week because of an increase in the numbers of migrants trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is 110km off the north African coast. Already, 5,500 Tunisian refugees have arrived on Lampedusa, and movements from Libya are expected to be on a far greater scale. The EU has dispatched around 30 member-state officials to Lampedusa in an operation that began on Sunday (20 February) and included the provision of surveillance airplanes, patrol boats and helicopters to help the Italian authorities. That mission, managed by Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, could be intensified very quickly to handle arrivals from Libya, according to officials.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that up to 1.5 million irregular migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, are currently in Libya, a country of around 6.5m people. There are reports of around 5,000 border crossings over the past few days from Libya to Tunisia, mostly of Tunisian workers, and of around 20,000 crossings into Egypt. According to the IOM, 657 people – most of them Tunisians – crossed into Tunisia yesterday alone.
Once migrants reach EU soil, they are entitled to have their asylum application examined. Italy fears that its asylum system would be overwhelmed by a sudden influx of foreigners.
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Around 10,000 EU citizens are thought to be in Libya. Member states have begun evacuating their citizens with both military and civilian planes, primarily from Tripoli airport, which is crammed with foreigners trying to escape the violence. France, Greece, Italy and the UK are among the member states that have positioned warships off the Libyan coast to receive foreigners should the situation deteriorate.
Because the EU has no delegation in Tripoli, the co-ordination of evacuations on the ground is being left to the few member states that have embassies there. A diplomat said that the evacuations were going well “given the circumstances”.