Frontex, the EU border agency, has been given instructions to start preparing for a possible unprecedented influx of immigrants and asylum seekers fleeing Libya towards the EU, particularly through Malta and Lampedusa.
The EU is “very concerned” about the possible exodus of some 750,000 Libyan citizens and sub-Saharan Africans from the country towards Europe as a result of the turmoil, according to European Commission sources.
The sources said Frontex, the EU’s border agency, was working on a plan involving all 27 member states to be put into action in case this exodus starts.
“We all know there is the potential of a massive exodus of asylum seekers from Libya and the fact that certain parts of the country now seem to be out of control may accelerate this influx,” a Commission source said.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has threatened to reopen the floodgates of African immigration towards Europe if the EU or any of its member states took the side of the protestors.
“The fact that the Libyan regime does not seem to be in control of the huge expanse of the 2,000-km long Libyan coastline might already pose a big danger of a flood of asylum seekers crossing by rogue boats towards Malta, Lampedusa and Sicily,” the sources said.
Libya has been the main point of departure for immigrants arriving in Malta in boatloads in the past years. Reaching a peak in 2009, their arrival declined steadily following the start of joint operations between Libya and Italy and more cooperation with the EU.
Last year, Col Gaddafi made a controversial proposal for the EU to pay his country €5 billion to keep illegal immigrants from “invading Europe”.
A Frontex spokesman yesterday confirmed that Malta was taking part in the Hermes 2011 mission off Lampedusa, although he did not give any details about what assets or personnel the island has committed towards this mission. Earlier reports said Malta had not yet made any commitment to the mission.
Following Italy’s request, Frontex last Sunday started an anti-illegal migration mission, both on and offshore Lampedusa, to help Italian authorities cope with the sudden influx of Tunisian immigrants and asylum seekers on the island. It is estimated that since the collapse of the Tunisian regime some 5,000 Tunisians have reached the Italian island by boat.
Although according to the Commission, the Frontex operation has started, the EU’s spokesman for Home Affairs Michele Cercone did not want to give specific details as to which member states were taking part. He said the situation was still “fluid” with some member states expected to join later this week.
He said apart from Italy and Malta, the Frontex mission had the support of many other member states, even from north Europe.
“We are very satisfied with the response Frontex received for this mission as many member states are showing solidarity.”
Asked whether Frontex was preparing for an eventual exodus from Libya, Mr Cercone confirmed this but said he would not “speculate on details and suppositions”.
Meanwhile, six EU Mediterranean member states will meet in Rome tomorrow in an urgent mini-summit to devise a common stance on the immigration crisis facing the southern Mediterranean region, a day before official talks of EU justice ministers in Brussels.
Although the meeting was set last week on the initiative of Italy on the heels of the Lampedusa situation, tomorrow’s meeting is now being given much more importance.
Justice Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici will be joining his Mediterranean counterparts for the pre-EU Council ministerial summit.
“The six member states want to go to Brussels with one strong voice,” a ministry spokesman said. Apart from Malta, the interior ministers of France, Cyprus, Spain, Greece and Italy are expected to formulate a joint position based on the need of concrete solidarity from the other member states in the area of asylum.