The European Union should equip and train the Libyan coastguard to stop people smugglers operating in the waters it patrols, according to an EU proposal put forward by Malta.
The Prime Minister of Malta, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, last week tabled the proposal as a short-term measure aimed at preventing a new spate of smuggling attempts when the weather warms up at the beginning of the spring, a time when traffickers typically ramp up their illegal crossing attempts.
Noting that that the EU’s anti-trafficking task force Operation Sophia does not have the authority to operate in Libyan waters, Joseph Muscat said Libyan forces should be equipped with the resources and training required to make them a “line of protection much closer to the ports of origin” of smuggler boats.
The proposal, prepared by the Maltese government in agreement with European Council President Donald Tusk, said “Libyan forces [would act] as frontline operators, but with strong and lasting EU support”. It says that while training could be delivered as part of Operation Sophia, the issue of financing needs to be addressed as a matter of priority for future training”.
Malta’s proposal could come before EU leaders at a summit in Valletta next month.
Addressing MEPs last week, Muscat also said an aid-for-cooperation deal with Libya could have a similar effect to a deal struck with Ankara last year, which resulted in fewer migrants making the crossing from Turkey to Greece.
Turkey is handed millions of euros a year by the EU in exchange for stopping migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Italy has also suggested that a similar deal with Libya could help stem the flow of asylum seekers making their way from North Africa to its shores.
“In my mind there is no doubt that unless the essence of the Turkey deal is replicated in the central Mediterranean, Europe will face a major migration crisis,” Muscat told the European Parliament last Wednesday.
“Let me not mince my words. I see no way in which one single member state can manage or absorb this further wave. Thus, the essence of the core principles of the European Union will be seriously tested unless we act now.”
The UN Refugee Agency’s Europe Director Vincent Cochetel described the plan as a non-starter, telling MEPs: “The EU Turkey agreement cannot be a blueprint for Libya. First, there is no government in Libya, so let’s not even talk about it.”
It has been reported that migrant arrivals from the Mediterranean route, which uses Libya as its main launchpad, rose to 180,000 in Italy last year, up from the previous annual record of 170,100 in 2014.