George Vella casts doubt on EU-Libya migration deal

George Vella warns that striking a deal with Libya – the main passageway for asylum seekers – will not be easy, as the country is highly unstable • Minister raises alarm on Russian involvement in Libya

Foreign Affairs Minister George Vella
Foreign Affairs Minister George Vella

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, 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.

This 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.”

He also mooted the idea of striking a deal with other North African countries such as Algeria and Egypt, and while recognising the difficulties in reaching an agreement with other countries, Vella said the implementation of such deals would also be difficult.

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.

Integra Foundation director Maria Pisani said refugees in Libya face human rights violations on a daily basis and said the proposal to strike a deal similar to the one signed with Turkey last year “is disingenuous and horrifying.”

“This is a crisis: it is a crisis of political morality.  It’s time to come up with a different way of doing things, the Prime Minister’s suggestion is a crude twist on his failed attempt at push-backs to Libya just three years ago. Refugees deserve better. We all deserve better,” she said.

On the notion of keeping asylum seekers in border countries such as Turkey – where Syrian refugees are left without effective protection or access to jobs and services that they desperately need, Pisani said “this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach is immoral and negates the member states’ legal responsibilities.”

Pisani said extraterritorial border controls are put in place to prevent refugees from seeking protection.

“At a very basic – and common sense level – preventing access to protection does not cancel the need for protection. Just because refugees will no longer be able to reach Europe will not mean they no longer exist.”

Likewise, Neil Falzon from Aditus Foundation said “beyond our opinion of the situation on the ground in Libya, Malta officially recognises that Libya is currently unable to offer protection to its own nationals. It does this by granting international protection to the vast majority of Libyan nationals seeking protection in Malta. We therefore question the logic of even thinking of a migration deal with Libya.”

He also pointed out that it is illegal for any State and the EU to force refugees to remain in a country where their lives or security would be at risk.

“If this hoped for deal envisages Libya preventing refugees – either its own nationals or others – from reaching Europe, then it is not merely an illogical arrangement but a clear violation of international and EU law. Will this be Malta’s legacy for its Presidency?”

Vella raises alarm on Russian involvement in Libya

Not since the Cold War have relations between Russia and the West been more dangerous than they are now. And Vella has warned that if Russia helps army general Khalifa Haftar take control of the country not only could Vladimir Putin set foot in Libya but it could also make the conflict in Libya permanent and drive more asylum seekers to Europe.

Describing a recent visit to a Russian aircraft carrier by Haftar as “cavorting with the Russians,” Vella said “I’m not comfortable. We all know the Russians’ dreams have always been to have bases in the Mediterranean.”

Asked whether he’s comfortable with US military bases in Sicily, Spain and other Mediterranean countries, Vella said “I’m not comfortable with any military presence in the region but having two jostling military powers in the region is not a good idea.”

He said that a Russian military presence in Libya could lead to frozen conflicts like the ones going on in parts of Georgia and the Ukraine.

Yet, Vella is confident Russia will respect the UN embargo on weapons transfers to Libya, even though in November last year Haftar met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow and asked for Russia’s help in fighting Islamist militants at home. This was Haftar’s second visit to Moscow in 2016.

Haftar is aligned with the eastern parliament and government based in Tobruk and currently controls huge swathes of eastern Libya, including major oil export facilities.

Russia’s courting of Haftar has prompted some to draw parallels with Syria, where the Kremlin stepped into a chaotic civil war to back President Bashar al-Assad.

Haftar recently visited Russia’s aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, as it was sailing from Syria and held a video call with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu.

The two discussed “urgent issues in the fight against international terrorist groups in the Middle East”, a Russian statement said.

Following the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya remains deeply divided between factions based in the east and west that back rival governments and parliaments.

Haftar, who is aligned with the eastern parliament and government, has been fighting a two-year military campaign with his Libyan National Army against Islamists and other opponents in Benghazi and elsewhere in the east. Many suspect he seeks national power.

Vella warned that if Haftar’s advance on Tripoli is successful, this could lead to a military rule which does not bode well for the Libyan population and neighbouring countries.

“Haftar argues that this is the only solution to the chaos in Libya but if the military takes power people’s rights will be repressed, leading to an explosive situation,” Vella said.