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25th Feb 2024

EU responds to Italy drownings with more support for Libya

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The European Commission wants to further shore up the Libyan coast guard and launch anti-smuggling partnerships with Tunisia and Egypt.

The proposals were outlined in a letter sent earlier this week by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and seen by EUobserver, to Italy's prime minister Giorgia Meloni.

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The letter came in response to Meloni, who had queried the European Commission over the recent drowning deaths of some 70 people, including small children, off the Calabrian coast.

"First, we must coordinate our actions with key patterns to prevent irregular departures and save lives at sea," said von der Leyen, in her letter.

This includes priority funding with Tunisia and Egypt, as well as "further support to Libya's maritime border management and search-and-rescue capacities," she said.

The boat which sank off the Italian coast late last month departed from Turkey and in an area not patrolled by NGO search-and-rescue boats.

Those NGO boats are currently under intense pressure from Rome's far-right government under Meloni's leadership. Geo Barents, a rescue boat operated by Doctor's without Borders, was recently detained and fined up to €10,000 by Italian authorities.

Von der Leyen's emphasis on North Africa, however, is part of a larger effort to stem irregular migration.

The European Commission had in February, along with Italian authorities, already handed over new patrol boats to the Libyan Coast Guard and announced some €800m for North Africa up until 2024.

But those intercepted at sea by the Libyans, including in search-and-rescue zones controlled by the Maltese , are returned to a country where they are often locked up in inhumane conditions.

The Libyans intercepted and returned almost 31,000 people last year, up from around 12,000 in 2020.

Over 330 have died or gone missing in the attempt across all Mediterranean routes, so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN body.

Meanwhile, the Egypt and Tunisia police plans will be part of a new north African multi-country program against smuggling in the region, she said.

Von der Leyen also mentioned €500m to help resettle some 50,000 people up until 2025, noting the need to create humanitarian corridors.

A first meeting had also taken place on how to best coordinate and cooperate on search and rescues among national authorities, she said.

Interior ministers in Brussels

The letter comes ahead of a crunch meeting in Brussels on Thursday (9 March) of interior ministers, where migration will be a key point of talks.

Although no decisions are expected, the discussions will likely feed into an European summit later this month.

Ministers on Thursday are set to discuss visa policy and how to best use it as leverage to get origin countries to take back their rejected nationals.

But internal aspects are also on the table.

Since December, the Dutch, along with other EU states, have been unable to return migrants to Italy under the so-called Dublin rules.

"The reason, as far as we understand right now, is that the Italians have a lack of reception capacities," an EU diplomat told reporters on Wednesday.

The Swedish EU presidency is also hoping to get some in-house agreements on the outstanding overhaul of the EU's asylum and migration policy.

Key to that reform is the regulation on asylum and migration management.

The rule is a core component of the overhaul first proposed by the European Commission in September 2020 and is set to replace the broken Dublin system currently in place.

A second EU diplomat said the Council, representing member states, is on track to get an internal agreement on the regulation.

But talks on politically sensitive issues, when it comes defining so-called mandatory solidarity, won't likely start until the next EU presidency, under Spain, in July.

"We need to have the legal framework in place first. I mean, there is there are a lot of opinions on this issue," said the EU diplomat.

That in-house agreement is needed before negotiations can start with the European Parliament amid a wider plan to get all the outstanding asylum files sorted before next year's European elections.

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