Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to cooperate more closely with Libya to stem the influx of migrants from North Africa to Europe via perilous Mediterranean crossings.
“The process is in its infancy, but it’s supposed to develop like [the refugee deal with] Turkey once did,” the chancellor told journalists Friday following talks with senior officials from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
To achieve this, Merkel said, it’s crucial to strengthen Libya’s government and improve conditions in detention centers across the country.
Dodging a question on whether she supported a proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron to set up “hotspots” to handle asylum requests from start to finish in Libya, Merkel said efforts to improve the situation “should not fail over money,” promising the organizations up to €50 million this year for new operations on the ground in Libya.
Friday’s working lunch, set up at Merkel’s request, took place as the Italian government attributed a sharp drop in the number of refugees arriving at its southern shores to closer operation with war-torn Libya.
During the first 10 days of August, the number of migrants making the crossing to Italy fell by 76 percent compared to the same period last year; last month, the number of arrivals had already halved compared to 2016. Interior Minister Marco Minniti told POLITICO on Thursday this was a direct result of Italy’s attempts to boost the Libyan navy and coast guard’s ability to deal with vessels carrying migrants.
However, talk of a potential turning point in the migration crisis along the Central Mediterranean route, which has become the main entry point for undocumented migrants to Europe, is premature, the IOM’s regional director for the EU, Norway and Switzerland cautioned ahead of the meeting with Merkel.
“These sort of comparisons need to be done over a longer period of time,” Eugenio Ambrosi told POLITICO in an interview at the IOM’s Berlin office. “It’s enough to have two weeks of bad weather more than last year, and you have a drop [in numbers.]”
Ambrosi acknowledged that the Italian measures could have had an impact but stressed that other factors such as “a significant reduction” of the number of people entering Libya from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as well as the slow stabilization of the political situation in parts of Libya, were equally decisive.
What’s more, most migrants picked up by Libyan ships “are brought back to detention centers where conditions are not acceptable,” he added. “So you have taken them out of a nasty situation at sea, but you are putting them in an equally nasty or at times worse situation on land.”
Asked about Macron’s suggestion of hotspots in Libya, Ambrosi said that although the idea seemed “excellent on paper,” there currently were some “insurmountable problems” such as the lack of a legal framework for such centers, and that only a few European countries are willing to take in refugees whose application for asylum is approved.
“We [first] need to have many more assurances from EU member states that those that would be recognized as refugees in these offshore processing centers are then actually accepted for resettlement,” he said. “And the track record, so far, of Europe as a whole, of course with exceptions … is not necessarily encouraging.”