If Europe targets people-smugglers in Libya unilaterally it will endanger the ongoing peace process and solve nothing, according to the Salvation Government’s Foreign Minister Muhammed El-Ghirani. He tells Mark Micallef Tripoli has been begging the EU for help to tackle migration.

Seasoned diplomats like Muhammed El-Ghirani have been dealing with the migration problem for years. Photo: Chris Sant FournierSeasoned diplomats like Muhammed El-Ghirani have been dealing with the migration problem for years. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The EU may have finally “woken up” to the migration crisis facing the Mediterranean but European frontline states and Libya, especially a seasoned diplomat like Muhammed El-Ghirani, have been dealing with this thorny problem for years.

When he talks about the subject, he can go back to agreements and statements made when his country was ruled by Muammar Gaddafi. Back then, as charges d’affaires in Malta for five years, he used to relay the message that Libya needed Europe’s help to deal with migration. The problem is too big for Libya to face on its own, the diplomatic line went.

Ten years later, he found himself travelling to Malta repeating that same message last week, this time representing a government in Tripoli which sees itself as the true representative of the revolution which toppled Gaddafi – as opposed to the internationally-recognised government in Tobruk which it accuses of having too many corrupt former cronies of the dictator within its ranks.

“If they want to do something good on this issue, they have to talk to us. We need to have a good programme to eradicate this problem. Who is in control, at least on the Western side of Libya? The Salvation Government, so they have to listen to us. I told this to the Maltese,” he argues, barely having settled for the interview.

The problem has been bogged in the diplomatic limbo that Tripoli finds itself in. The West only recognises Tobruk, which means that it doesn’t formally talk with the government in Tripoli and therefore does not cooperate, even on urgent matters like the migration crisis.

“We appealed to the EU many times to do something about this problem with us... we are not happy with (irregular) immigration, this is a big problem for our country too.

“But Europe, and this includes Malta, decided to recognise the Tobruk government. So whenever we tried talking to them, even about (irregular) immigration, they told us, we cannot talk to you. Well, we tell them, if they don’t want to talk to us, how can we solve the problem?”

His words come in the wake of an emergency EU summit called in reaction to the Mediterranean’s biggest migrant tragedy in which an estimated 800 people died off Libya.

We appealed to the EU many times to do something about this problem with us

Among other things, the EU considered an Italian proposal to “target” smugglers by destroying smugglers’ boats on Libyan shores.

The final communiqué adopted by EU leaders is as vague as they come but the bloc still kept the commitment to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”.

Many observers questioned what that means in practice but Dr El-Ghirani goes a step further: “How are they going to know that what they are hitting are smugglers’ boats and not fishermen’s boats? And sometimes they hit innocent people... collateral damage. They could kill innocent fishermen for instance.”

He also warns that unilateral action might endanger the delicate peace talks currently taking place in Morocco.

Despite ongoing fighting, there are signs the two sides are making progress. “We won’t be happy about (strikes) and will confront it because you cannot just come and hit,” he says.

However, Dr El-Ghirani also points out that Europe’s focus on the Mediterranean is also self-serving. “We cannot be expected to do something about the coast without also doing something in the south,” he says.

Libya has had a steady flow of hundreds of migrants entering through the southern border, a desert expanse more than 2,000 kilometres long straddling five countries: Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt.

It has always been a very porous border, but since the revolution the lawlessness that gripped the country exacerbated the problem.

“Two months ago I travelled to Niger for a meeting with my counterpart to see if I could re-activate an old, Gaddafi-era border agreement in which some European countries were also parties. Basically I was told this is not our priority right now, we have the problem of (the terrorist group) Boko Haram in the south and cannot be dealing with this too,” he says.

“I understand this but it leaves us with the problem on our own. If Europe insists on doing something on the coast without helping us do something with the Southern border, basically you’re saying this is your problem,” he insists.

But many in Europe would argue that Tripoli can do much more already on the smuggling networks operating on the coast. Libyans know where the main sending sites are. So why doesn’t Tripoli tackle these smugglers?

“Sometimes we do but it’s not easy, believe me. Weapons are scattered everywhere right now. They can confront you in a very heavy, violent way,” he points out.

Moreover, he argues that these criminal networks are scattered, possibly reaching Malta and even Italy.

“I am convinced there are Italians involved, so Europe has to do something about this too.”

Tripoli has been keen to promote to the outside world that it is in control of its territory, but the picture he paints suggests the opposite is the case.

“Well, I think we are getting better in terms of control but, don’t forget, we are in a quasi war, so we are not 100 per cent. We have to deal with the war and with these problems,” he says, going back to his original message:

“That’s why we need Europe’s help. We need logistical help, we need aircraft and cameras to monitor the situation,” he says.

mark.micallef@timesofmalta.com

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