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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Analysis: Migrant boats test EU

By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs correspondent

Italy is pushing to set up reception centres in Libya to stem the tide of "boat people" who cross the sea from North Africa to Europe.

Boatload of migrants at Lampedusa, 16 Aug 04
Hundreds of migrants have arrived at Lampedusa this month
On a visit to Libya this week Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi discussed the proposal with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. But it has raised a storm of controversy.

It is a story of death on the high seas, uncontrolled migration out of poor, war-torn states, a secretive summit in the Libyan desert, and European leaders looking for "quick fix" solutions to an intractable problem.

Italy has taken a lead, claiming that up to two million migrants or refugees from a ring of unstable states are preparing to cross Libya before trying to reach European shores by sea.

In the past week nearly 1,000 desperate men, women and children from Africa and Asia have arrived by boat from the Libyan coast on the Italian island of Lampedusa off Sicily.

All hope for protection and a better life. Experts say that hundreds may be dying each year attempting the dangerous crossing.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (right)
Italy's thaw with Libya contrasts with a bloody colonial past


Libya, isolated for years because of its alleged support for international terrorism, is now a major gateway for illegal immigration. EU countries which border the Mediterranean urgently want to control the flow.

A new chance opened up in December 2003, when Libya renounced its nuclear and other secret weapons programmes, and tried to wipe clean its past record as a so-called "rogue state".

Sanctions are being lifted. Colonel Gaddafi wants European countries to invest in Libya's rich oilfields - and to help stem the transit of large numbers of people from Sudan, Chad and Niger to the Libyan coast.

Italian ministers call uncontrolled immigration "a time bomb".

And Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's Europe Minister, who is due to become the EU's commissioner for immigration and justice affairs in November, recently unveiled new plans for EU-backed "migrant reception centres" inside Libya.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Berlusconi flew there for closed-door talks in the desert with Mr Gaddafi. Later he said Italy and Libya could work out solutions that would be a model for Europe and Africa.

Mr Buttiglione says the proposed camps would take in migrants, including those from sub-Saharan Africa, to give them humanitarian aid and perhaps information on job possibilities in Europe.

His boss Mr Berlusconi hinted the plan could move ahead quickly. He is to send his interior minister to Tripoli next month for more talks. Media reports said tents and equipment would be shipped to Libya within weeks.

Support for Italy

The Italian plan has support from Germany. Britain is also interested, though its own proposal last year for processing centres on the fringes of world trouble-spots was dropped after fierce opposition.

Ministers from the EU's "Big Five" states - Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain - will hold talks soon to try to forge a new EU-wide policy.

The plan for reception centres has potential merits:

  • It could save lives by providing humanitarian relief and forestalling many dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean

  • It could cut out the criminal gangs of people-smugglers who exploit the poorest and most vulnerable

  • It could be part of a strategy for controlled, legal migration into European countries whose economies need a large supply of immigrant labour.

But refugees and human rights groups like Caritas fear the centres would become "concentration camps" in the desert.

The objections are:

  • Libyan attempts to stop migrants at its southern borders are said to be causing extra hardship. The EU and international agencies may be unable to manage "reception centres" safely in such barren areas

  • Some European governments suspect that "reception centres" in Africa would deprive bona fide refugees of the chance to apply for asylum in Europe

  • Libya wants a normalisation of relations with the EU in return for co-operation. Some EU governments will not export hi-tech equipment to Libya or give Colonel Gaddafi political approval before he proves he is serious about democratic reforms and renouncing anti-western militancy.

Each European country decides about immigration on the basis of domestic needs and its own public opinion.

Spain recently announced an amnesty to many illegal immigrants, acknowledging its need for foreign labour.

But other governments give in to populist opinion by sounding as tough as possible against immigration.

Policy battle

It is hard even to define what EU policies are now.

The 25 member-states see it as a matter of their own vital interest.

The European Commission claims it as its own area of responsibility.

But Mr Buttiglione, before taking up his Brussels Commission job, has floated his grand ideas about Libya without consulting others.

So the goal of a fair and uniform EU-wide policy on immigration still looks far off.

And what about the EU's much-heralded Common Foreign and Security Policy? On immigration it does not exist - yet.

Italy's 'little Senegal'
19 Apr 04 |  Africa
Libya: Tough gateway to Europe
30 Dec 03 |  Africa
Migrant headache dogs Italy
01 Jul 03 |  Europe


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