Malta wants EU-Libyan patrols to stop boat migrants

Maltese government presents EU ministers with ‘non-paper’ to discuss placing EU guards outside Libyan territorial waters

The Maltese government has presented home affairs ministers of the EU with a “non-paper” – diplomatic-speak for a political memo – calling for joint patrols with the Libyan navy in a bid to stop the influx of migrants through the Central Mediterranean route.

Malta has assumed the presidency of the European Union and is currently tasked with the delicate bid to push the reform of the Dublin Regulation, which forces EU member states to process any asylum claims presented at their borders.

In its aide-memoire to European member states, Malta has proposed placing European coast guard patrols just outside the extensive Libyan coast, in joint patrols with Libyan counterparts, who will then take intercepted migrant boats back to Libyan shores.

Carmelo Abela (right) with Commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramapoulos
Carmelo Abela (right) with Commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramapoulos

As a non-paper, the document does not assume any official status, but serves as a discussion point for EU ministers of the interior to consider. Controversially, member states will have to decided whether the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, borne out of the ashes of the Frontex agency, will be stopping the passage of migrant boats just off the Libyan territorial waters, to have them escorted back to coast by the Libyan navy.

The Central Mediterranean Route has returned to the fore of Europe’s migratory flux, with 729 asylum seekers having arrived on the Sicilian coast within just the first two weeks of 2017.

Foreign affairs minister George Vella
Foreign affairs minister George Vella

However, Maltese foreign minister George Vella has poured cold water on the possibility of striking a deal with Libya to stem the flow of migrants to Europe, which Prime Minister Joseph Muscat this week said was urgent.

“It’s a question of if and when Libya becomes stable,” Vella said, adding that the situation in the troubled North African country is “very different” from that in Turkey, which last year signed a deal with the EU to hold back Syrian refugees.

While pointing out that despite its problems, Turkey remains a safe country, Vella said: “I ask whether Libya is a safe country, and I’ll leave it at that.”

Predicting record numbers of crossings across the Mediterranean this spring, Prime Minsiter Joseph Muscat said “we will have a crisis” as he kicked-off Malta’s six-month EU presidency.

Calling for a deal modelled on the EU-Turkey agreement, Muscat said European leaders could choose between “trying to do something now, or meeting urgently in April, May... and try to do a deal then.”

But Vella warned that striking a deal with Libya – the main passageway for asylum seekers – will not be easy, as the country is highly unstable.

“Reaching an agreement with Libya is no easy task,” Vella said of the oil-rich country with three rival governments and countless militias all vying for territorial control.

He also shed doubt on the ability of the UN-recognised government led by Fayez Serraj – which is deemed as weak and incompetent by many in Libya and abroad – saying that potential pitfalls must be avoided.

Joseph Muscat (left) with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker
Joseph Muscat (left) with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker

Last week, Muscat said that the EU should draw up an arrangement with Libya, from where most migrants leave Africa for Europe. It would use European money and expand an agreement already in place between Italy and Libya.

Muscat said “there is already a framework that has been negotiated. The Italian deal can serve as a basis.”

But Vella said that Libya’s UN-backed government has not accepted proposals by Italy aimed at cutting migrant flows and the two sides are “far apart” on reaching an agreement.

On stemming the flow of migration towards Europe, Vella said the situation was complex and “it doesn’t simply work by closing access as if we’re placing a traffic barrier.”
Vella – who often says Libya is on the brink of becoming a failed state – also acknowledged the fact that doubts linger on whether Libya would uphold the rights of asylum seekers if these were to be sent back or kept in the North African country before applying for asylum.