Sunday 25 August 2019

Libya to EU: recognise regime or we'll send flood of migrants

One of the members of the military protecting a demonstration against candidates for a national unity government proposed by UN envoy for Libya Bernardino Leon
One of the members of the military protecting a demonstration against candidates for a national unity government proposed by UN envoy for Libya Bernardino Leon

Colin Freeman in Tripoli

Libya has issued a veiled threat to send "hundreds of thousands" of extra migrants to Europe if Brussels does not give official recognition to its self-declared government.

Officials say they could hire boats to send large numbers of African migrants across the Mediterranean, massively adding to the numbers already reaching Europe's borders.

The warning was made by a spokesman for Libya's General National Congress (GNC) in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The Congress took control of Tripoli last year after fighting against forces loyal to the internationally recognised House of Representatives government, and is not recognised by the European Union as Libya's legitimate government.

A fortnight ago, both factions also rejected the terms of a United Nations-brokered peace deal.

Jamal Zubia, the Congress's foreign media spokesman, said that Libya was currently spending tens of millions of euro a year stopping migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, through the use of detention centres and repatriation programmes.

He said that if Europe continued to refuse to recognise the Congress's authority, the Libyan government could reverse the policy.

"To be honest, I have advised my government many times already that we should hire boats and send them to Europe," he said. "We are protecting the gates of Europe, yet Europe does not recognise us and does not want to recognise us. So why should we stop the migrants here?"

Libya has long been a major transit country for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, but the numbers have grown much greater thanks to the security vacuum that followed Muammar Gaddafi's fall in 2011.

Last year alone, an estimated 170,000 migrants arrived by boat from Libya in Italy. Between January and September this year, the figure was 130,000, although that reflects greater use of the so-called "Aegean" route via Turkey and Greece, where 360,000 people have so far crossed in 2015.

This week, the UN said that in total, more than 218,000 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in October - the highest monthly figure on record, and more than during the whole of 2014.

Contrary to popular impression, the Libyan government does not turn a complete blind eye to people-smuggling.

Its Department for Combating Illegal Immigration employs around 8,000 staff and detains large numbers of migrants for entering the country illegally, as well as working with the International Organisation for Migration on voluntary repatriation programmes.

However, the sheer number of migrants vastly outweighs the capacity of the authorities to deal with them, even though Libya spends around €113m a year on the issue.

With the country still in the process of rebuilding its government after Colonel Gaddafi's overthrow, many officials also resent deploying resources on what they see as a European problem.

Mr Zubia stressed that his government had no immediate plans to stop its efforts to half the flow of migrants, or to start hiring ships to speed their passage to Europe.

But his comments will be seen as a reminder to Europe that the GNC in Tripoli has ways in which it can retaliate for the European Union's continued refusal to recognise it as a government. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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