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21st Sep 2018

Confusion swirls round Macron's Libya 'hotspots'

  • Op to 1 million people living in migrant camps in Libya (Photo: ECHO/M.Eick)

A reported French plan to create "hotspots" in Libya this summer, to check asylum seekers before they try to come to Europe, remains unclear amid legal difficulties and official denials.

"The idea is to create hotspots to avoid people taking crazy risks when they are not all eligible for asylum," French president Emmanuel Macron was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse (AFP) on Thursday (27 July).

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  • Macron reportedly said: "The idea is to create hotspots to avoid people taking crazy risks" (Photo: elysee.fr)

According to AFP, he said that he would send staff from Ofpra, the French office for the protection of refugees and stateless persons, to Italy, Libya, and, possibly, to Niger.

"I intend to do it this summer," he added, AFP said.

He reportedly noted that "other European countries are very reluctant" and that France would "do it" even without the EU.

The announcement - made while visiting a refugee facility in Orleans, in central France - appears to have been premature.

"Security conditions must be met, however. Today they are not," the president's office later told AFP, casting doubt on whether his intentions would be followed by action.

Details of the AFP quotes were also contested by Macron’s administration, with the Elysee denying that Macron had used the word “hotspot” or named Libya.

A French source told EUobserver that Macron meant asylum requests should be treated as closely as possible to the migrants' countries of origin.

In a speech he gave during the visit, the French leader also said he wanted the EU to be “able to process asylum seekers as close as possible to the ground, in the safest third country, close to the country of origin".

He said France would send Ofpra missions to Italy and "on African soil, in safe countries," but did not name Libya in this context.

In his speech, he referred to Libya only to point out that 800,000 to 1 million people lived in camps there and that they would not all be eligible for asylum. He also said that he wanted to "politically stabilise" the country.

The initial AFP report on Macron’s “hotspots” in “Libya” wrong-footed the European Commission.

A Commission spokeswoman, Natasha Bertaud, said that the EU executive would need time to "define exactly what is being proposed."

Too much in a word

"We're open to discussing with any and all of our member states how we can improve the situation along the central Mediterranean route," said Bertaud.

The reported use of the word "hotspots" by Macron created particular confusion.

The so-called EU hotspots, established in Greece and Italy, are facilities where migrants are identified, registered, and where they can request asylum.

Bertaud noted that "many things are comprised in the word 'hotspot'," and said it was difficult to see what Macron might have meant in the case of a non-EU country like Libya.

Creating hotspots in Libya, an EU source pointed out, would imply that they followed the rules of Eurodac, the EU's fingerprint database, when identifying asylum applicants, and would mean bringing in judges to supervise the process.

Processing asylum seekers in Libya would also mean that EU countries, and at least France, would accept to relocate them.

"I don't think that's what Macron has in mind," the EU source said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz welcomed Macron’s ”important contribution to the closure of the Mediterranean route and stopping illegal migration".

Refugee camps

Kurz, as well as the Hungarian government, have been pushing for the opening of refugee camps in Libya in order to prevent people from coming to Europe.

Some 30 camps already exist in Libya for migrants and displaced people. The UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), operate in about 20 of them.

Bertaud said, for now, the EU was working with the UNHCR and the IOM to improve conditions in the camps and to resettle asylum seekers in the EU.

Macron's announcement comes two days after he hosted Libya's rival political leaders, Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, for a meeting in which they agreed to a ceasefire and to elections next year.

Meanwhile, the EU continues its effort to prevent smugglers transporting people across the Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, it extended the Sophia EU maritime mission until the end of 2018 and, on Thursday, a commission spokesman said that the EU was "ready to move to the next phase”, in which EU ships would intervene in Libyan waters.

This story was updated at 7PM in Brussels on Thursday, taking note of the Elysee's denial of the AFP quotes

Macron wants asylum claims to start in Africa

The French president hosted a mini-summit with leaders from Chad, Libya and Niger, along with Germany, Italy and Spain. Among the proposals is a plan to set up safe zones in Niger and Chad to initiate asylum claims.

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