What should be done about Libya's migrant crisis?

The capsizing of a rubber boat in the Mediterranean sea between Libya and Italy, costing as many as 900 lives has galavanized the EU to take action to stem the flow of migrants from war-torn Libya.

In the long term, almost everyone agrees that some kind of political stability needs to be forged in Libya before the crisis can be made managable. But with two rival governments, several powerful tribal leaders, and hundreds of militias all vying for power and influence, no political solution appears possible for many months - perhaps years.

In the meantime, 11,000 migrants, mostly from Libya, made it to Italy in the last 10 days. An untold number, estimated in the thousands, drowned trying to escape the carnage during the same period. Every day brings fresh news of tragedies at sea. The question of what to do about the humanitarian crisis is the subject being discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers today.


Solutions aired by ministers on their way into the Luxembourg conference center included a call by Britain to crack down on smugglers in North Africa who charge thousands of dollars to load people onto rubber dinghies and fishing boats.

Austria said it supported an Italian proposal to set up camps in the Middle East and Africa where people can request asylum on site without having to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

France's Europe Minister Harlem Desir said the EU's Triton border protection operation, which replaced a more comprehensive Italian search-and-rescue operation dubbed Mare Nostrum last year, was not enough and its scope was too limited.

Triton was launched in November last year with seven boats, two planes and one helicopter - much smaller than Mare Nostrum, which had far greater air and sea rescue capabilities, using radar, aircraft and drones. The Triton monthly budget is 2.9 million euros ($3.12 million), a third of Mare Nostrum's.

"We need resources, much more substantial resources for this operation of border control, border surveillance and ... when necessary to help for people who are threatened with being shipwrecked," Desir said.

Italy wants Egypt and Tunisia to play a role in rescuing stricken migrant vessels in the Mediterranean. Once the migrants are taken out of the sea by the Egyptians or the Tunisians, they could be taken to North African ports.

None of those proposals would put a dent in the problem of human trafficking that is the primary impetus for the crisis:

Italy, in fact, is very much alone on the frontline of what is turning into a major migrant crisis. More than 3,000 people died making the voyage from North Africa to Italy in 2014. If the numbers from this weekend’s disaster prove to be true, more than 1,500 people will have lost their lives in the last week alone. Italy takes all of the migrant deaths that happen in the waters patrolled by its Coast Guard and Navy seriously.  "We have said too many times 'never again',” Federica Mogherini, an Italian who is head of the European Union’s top representative for foreign affairs and security, said on Sunday. “Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay. We need to save human lives all together, as all together we need to protect our borders and to fight the trafficking of human beings."

Getting Europe to agree on a problem each country sees differently is almost impossible. On Monday, European foreign ministers will meet in Luxembourg to once again discuss the issue. Renzi and the prime minister of Malta have demanded an emergency summit on the matter.

There have been suggestions that sending a unified force of naval ships to turn back migrant vessels is the best solution, but the reality is that turning back a listing ship packed with hundreds of desperate refugees is not possible. Border control quickly becomes search and rescue.  

European leaders have agreed that stopping the human traffickers who ferry the migrants is a top priority. Italy arrested 976 traffickers in the last year alone, but the boats keep coming. On Monday, authorities in Sicily said they had identified several key traffickers in Palermo and are working to dismantle a network that apparently runs from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Libyan Coast. The police in Palermo say they even found a money trail worth “hundreds of thousands of euro.”

While Europe decides what to do and how best to stop the carnage, the ships keep coming and the rescuers keep saving lives and scooping up bodies from the sea.

Once the migrants put to sea, there is very little that can be done to turn them around. But can the small, coastal navy of Italy rescue the bulk of them? France has considerable naval assets in the Med, as does the US. But warships are not rescue vessels and outfitting a large fleet with the capability to safely transfer people from their overloaded boats and dinghys to naval vessels, would mean a refit that would take months. 

So the EU continues to express concern and talk. That's all they can do. Meanwhile, nothing is deterring the migrants from fleeing the failed state of Libya and taking their chances on the high seas in less than seaworthy craft. 

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