THE collapse of Colonel Gaddafi's regime could result in a tidal wave of refugees and illegal immigrants pouring into Europe, EU ministers warned yesterday.
Officials in Brussels believe as many as 750,000 refugees could attempt to cross the Mediterranean into southern Europe. But Libyan estimates put the figure as high as two million, with vast numbers of sub-Saharan illegal immigrants seizing the opportunity to use the lawless country as a gateway to Europe.
An accord signed between the EU and Tripoli last year has helped combat the flow of illegal immigrants. But with diplomats claiming Col Gaddafi's 42-year rule could be in its death throes, southern Europe is being warned to prepare for a fresh influx of migrants.
Col Gaddafi had earlier threatened to withdraw border and coastal patrols, warning "Europe will become black" if he ceased co-operation over immigration.
But while EU diplomats insisted he was in no position to make such threats, some Mediterranean countries said it was inevitable the sudden collapse of his regime would lead to a major increase in those heading to Europe. Italy, which has close industrial and business ties with Libya, and where the vast majority of African immigrants make landfall, urged a cautious response to the latest developments.
The country is already facing an immigration crisis after a seaborne influx of over 5,000 Tunisian refugees on to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa since the regime fell last month.
Tens of thousands of illegal migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa try to make the journey from the coasts of Tunisia and Libya to islands off Italy and Malta every year.
With the backing of Malta, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told a meeting of EU ministers that if Col Gaddafi fell, the EU would face a flood of immigrants.
He said: "Italy, as you know, is the closest neighbour, both of Tunisia and Libya, so we are extremely concerned about the repercussions on the migratory situation in the southern Mediterranean."
He added: "We need a European comprehensive action plan. We should support all peaceful transitional processes that are ongoing in the Middle East while avoiding a patronising position."
He also warned of a power vacuum leading to the formation of an Islamic state in the east of the country. (© Daily Telegraph, London)