EU aid fails to stem flow of refugees

Libyans com­plain of faulty boats

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

WHEN Libya’s coast­guard re­ceived the first of a lon­gawaited batch of pa­trol boats from Italy last month, two of the four ves­sels still had me­chan­i­cal prob­lems and one broke down on the way to Tripoli.

As Italy’s in­te­rior min­is­ter later flew in to present the boats of­fi­cially at a naval base in the Libyan cap­i­tal, coast guards grum­bled that the ves­sels were old and had lit­tle deck space for res­cued mi­grants.

“They want us to be Europe’s po­lice­man. At the same time, that po­lice­man needs resources.

“I chal­lenge any­one to work in these con­di­tions,” said naval coast­guard spokesper­son Ay­oub Qassem.

At Tripoli’s Tariq al-Siqqa refugee cen­tre, where vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries are brought, flow­ers have been planted in the court­yard and wash­basins in­stalled.

But behind a pad­locked metal gate hun­dreds of refugees still lan­guish, crammed side-by-side on mat­tresses in a sin­gle un­ven­ti­lated room.

“They shut us up, they im­prison us, they ask us for money,” said one 22-year-old from Guinea, who has been in the cen­tre since March.

“They hit peo­ple. They don’t like black skin.”

The sea route from the Libyan coast is one of two main routes in the big­gest flow of mi­grants to Europe since World War II.

The other, by sea from Turkey to Greece, was largely shut down last year af­ter an agree­ment be­tween the EU and Ankara, but the flow from Libya has only in­creased.

This year has al­ready seen 70 000 peo­ple make the jour­ney, with the sum­mer peak sea­son for the voy­age only just be­gin­ning.

An es­ti­mated 2 000 have died so far this year.

Unlike Turkey, Libya is still seen as too dan­ger­ous for Euro­peans to send back refugees, so those who make it into in­ter­na­tional waters usu­ally end up in Italy.

Libya’s peo­ple-smug­gling net­works flour­ished amid the up­heaval that fol­lowed the death of former pres­i­dent Muam­mar al-Gaddafi in 2011, and their trade surged af­ter 2014, when con­flict spread and ri­val gov­ern­ments were set up in Tripoli and the east.

Since last year, the EU has made a push to co-op­er­ate with a new Libyan gov­ern­ment backed by the UN.

Coast­guard train­ing be­gan on board EU ships in Oc­to­ber.

In Fe­bru­ary, Italy signed a me­moran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with Tripoli that the EU quickly en­dorsed, ear­mark­ing €90 mil­lion (R1.3 billion).

But Europe has de­liv­ered lit­tle con­crete sup­port, said Tarek Shan­bour, a se­nior coast­guard of­fi­cial. “We meet, we talk, we take de­ci­sions, we make agree­ments, but on the ground there is no ex­e­cu­tion.”

The Libyan gov­ern­ment has lit­tle sway out­side the cap­i­tal or even over some of the min­istries within it.

Its author­ity has been re­jected in the east and is barely felt in the south where smug­glers bring refugees in across the Sa­hara.

“So far we can’t say as the EU we’ve achieved much,” an EU of­fi­cial said on con­di­tion of anonymity.

“The point is we need short-term so­lu­tions but there are no short term-so­lu­tions. There is no Turkey deal in North Africa.”

As Euro­pean pol­icy mak­ers study longer-term schemes to im­prove se­cu­rity on Libya’s south­ern bor­ders, wean com­mu­ni­ties off smug­gling, and pro­vide aid in refugees’ coun­tries of ori­gin, Libyan of­fi­cials worry that num­bers in­side Libya will swell.

They say they have lit­tle ca­pac­ity to host mi­grants in a coun­try deep in eco­nomic cri­sis, where nearly 250 000 are still in­ter­nally dis­placed.

Euro­pean funding has helped in­crease vol­un­tary repa­tri­a­tions of refugees caught in Libya who agree to re­turn home, but this is un­likely to sur­pass 10 000 this year.

PIC­TURE: AP

Men sit on the deck of the Golfo Az­zurro ves­sel af­ter be­ing res­cued by mem­bers of the Span­ish non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion Open Arms on the Mediter­ranean sea, 32km north of Zuwarah, Libya.

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