Interior ministers from the central Mediterranean region met in Rome Monday to ramp up efforts to curb migration from Libya amid a sharp rise in the number of people attempting the perilous crossing to Europe.
One year after a controversial deal with Turkey to stop migrants from setting out across the Aegean Sea for Greece, the EU is trying to set up a similar accord with conflict-hit Libya, despite fierce opposition from human rights campaigners.
Over 3,300 people were rescued from unseaworthy vessels off the North African country over the weekend, bringing the number of arrivals in Italy to nearly 20,000 so far in 2017 — a significant increase from previous years.
Interior ministers from Algeria, Austria, Germany, Italy, Libya, Malta, Slovenia, Switzerland and Tunisia took part in the meeting, along with European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos.
Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti said the meeting would focus on "policies of development, social intervention, border control and repatriation" and that he hoped it would lead to "an increasingly shared management of migratory flows."
In 2016, 90 percent of migrants who made it to Italy left from Libya, but none were Libyan nationals, according to Italian Interior Minister Minniti.
Libya's U.N.-backed unity government has requested 800 million euros ($860 million) worth of equipment to help patrol its coast and territorial waters, including radars, boats, helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, according to Italy's Corriere della Sera daily. There has also been talk of a Libya-based operational center to coordinate rescues in the international waters off the North African coast, relieving the burden on Rome, which has been forced to monitor and intervene well beyond its established maritime surveillance zone.
Experts say some of the equipment requested by Libya would conflict with the U.N. embargo on arms imports into the country. Critics also warn against planned repatriations of asylum seekers to a country where allegations of torture, rape and murder are rife.
Around 20 migrants were killed by traffickers earlier this month on a beach in Libya after refusing to get onto a rickety boat that was destined for Europe because of bad weather at sea. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that 15,852 migrants and refugees reached Italy across the central Mediterranean route as of March 15 of this year, while 481 people died in the attempt.