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Saturday, 12 March 2011

EU fear of north African migrants 'overblown'

Concerned about the "massive migration movements" from Libya, EU leaders on Friday (11 March) called for extra staff and money for the bloc's border agency and offered financial assistance to north African countries in stemming potential waves of immigrants.

"We need to be very upfront on the question of migratory flows. There are 200,000 displaced persons between Libya, Egypt and Tunisia," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said during a press briefing after an EU leaders' meeting dedicated to the Libyan crisis.

"If we don't deal with them humanely then there is a huge temptation for them to come to Europe and we don't have the wherewithal to deal with them," he said. The French leader warned of a "Lampedusa times ten", in reference to the Italian island just 113 km off the Tunisian coast, which has seen a massive increase in refugee boats arriving in past weeks.

Most of the young, French-speaking Tunisians arriving in Italy are actually France-bound. Right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, a candidate for the presidency in 2012, is set to kick off her pre-campaign on Lampedusa on Monday.

German chancellor Angela Merkel also indicated Europe struck a stern note. "I don't see a future for having more and more people emigrate to Europe. Of course, there is a difference when we are having a civil war situation, but the future for these people is to rebuild their countries on the ground."

In the final conclusions, EU leaders expressed their solidarity for those member states "most directly concerned by migratory movements" and said that the bloc's border agency, Frontex, should receive more personnel and equipment from national governments and extra money from the EU budget.

"The European Union will consult with the countries of the region concerned on financial and technical support to improve the control and management of borders and measures to facilitate the return of migrants to their countries of origin," the text reads. A special plan on "development of capacities to manage migration and refugee flows" is requested from the EU commission by June.

One sweetener, introduced by the more migration-friendly countries, foresees a "comprehensive approach" to migration, including visa facilities and encouraging students and pupils exchanges between the northern and southern Mediterranean shores.

But aid workers on the ground dismiss talk of a "biblical exodus" as Italian authorities have repeatedly put it.

Out of the roughly 250,000 refugees who fled Libya to neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, the number of people potentially heading to Europe is in the hundreds, Jumbe Omari Jumbe from the International Organisation for Migration told EUobserver from the Tunisian-Libyan border.

"I just came back from a transit camp where there are some 15,000 refugees, mostly Bangladeshi and Bengali, awaiting to be repatriated," he said.

Subsaharan refugees, less than 3,000, were also mostly keen on returning home, except for a couple of hundreds of Somali and Eritrean people who may try to cross over the Mediterranean.

"It's an overblown fear. Leaders should not take advantage of people suffering," the aid worker said. In order to attempt to cross over the sea by boat, migrants usually have to accumulate some money to pay off the middlemen and traffickers. "But most of these people have been stripped of all their belongings, they don't even know where to start," he stressed.

Instead of stirring up fears of massive immigration, the EU should help international organisations such as the UNHCR and the IOM with more money.

With only four flights a day, the 12,000 Bengalis who are awaiting to be repatriated could spend months in the refugee camp. Some have already started "mini riots," Omari Jumbe said.

"There is big support in terms of EU funds, but the problem is that it's piecemeal. One flight to Bengali and back costs 1 million US dollars," he explained.

The IOM has appealed for an extra €35 million from the international community to assist in the evacuation of up to 65,000 migrants caught up in the Libyan crisis. The EU this week upped its humanitarian assistance to €30 million.