Italy and the European Union have pledged to finance migrant camps in Libya run by the U.N.-backed government, an agreement showed on Friday, as part of a wider European Union drive to stem immigration from Africa.
The agreement, signed by Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj on Thursday and seen by Reuters on Friday, says Rome and the EU will provide funds for Libyan camps where refugees and migrants are held.
The U.N. refugee agency said running camps in Libya would mean keeping migrants in inhumane conditions and putting them further at risk.
EU leaders met in Malta on Friday to discuss how the 28-member bloc can stop migrants before they board flimsy boats on the Libyan coast and set out across the Mediterranean for Europe.
"The situation there is different and even more complex that in the east, and we have to be innovative while drawing on the principles that have guided our action over the past months", said President Tusk in the invitation letter.
Some 4,500 are estimated to have perished attempting to cross from North Africa to Italy last year.
The Italian-Libyan agreement says the camps where migrants would stay "until they are deported or they voluntary agree to return to their country of origin" would be managed by the Libyan Interior Ministry.
Italy would provide training to camp personnel, medicine and medical supplies for the migrants, it said. Furthermore, Italy vows broad support to the Seraj government, including for Tripoli's "security and military institutions".
The Seraj government is struggling to establish control amid the chaos that followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. People smugglers have been thriving and are operating with impunity; the route across the Mediterranean is now the main gateway to Europe, with some 181,000 arrivals last year alone.
"Running camps in Libya would mean keeping migrants in inhumane conditions and putting them further at risk," Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, told Reuters. This is a U-turn for E.U. migrant and refugee policy as originally it was planned to distribute the migrants throughout the EU (and did not even distinguish between refugees and illegal immigrants and there was no talk of deportations either); countries like Hungary and Poland were even threatened when they criticized the decision.
As well as trying to disrupt smuggling gangs, the EU aims to deport more failed asylum seekers from Italy, using its cash to overcome resistance among African states to taking people back. Deportations may never occur on a grand scale, but EU officials argue that a more visible risk of being deported may dissuade would-be migrants from setting out in the first place. Other deterrence, including publicizing the fate of many migrants, may be having an effect. In Agadez in Niger, the numbers gathering to cross the Sahara have plunged, though smugglers may just have altered routes.