The JHA Council yesterday rejected Italy’s call for a stronger EU response to what it describes as an impending migrant flow from North Africa consisting of hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers. Several EU governments described the Italian request as one that was based on exaggerated fears. Hungary’s interior minister, Sandor Pinter, told reporters that “we shouldn’t paint the devil on the wall until he appears.” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said “we shouldn’t be painting horror figures and encouraging refugees to come to Europe.” Another accused Italy of “crying wolf.”
IOM spokeswoman Jemini Pandya said that while Italy should not shoulder a refugee burden on its own, no Libyans have arrived in Italy to date and she rejected the Italian estimates: “I don’t think in any shape or form you are going to see one-and-a-half million migrants suddenly flood into Europe. That is really not going to happen at all. That would really be fear mongering to the extreme.”
Italy has done itself and neighbouring countries a disservice by repeatedly speaking of an “exodus of biblical proportions” and by suggesting that many hundreds of thousands of migrants are poised to take to the sea to try to reach Italy and Malta from Libya. These estimates are in all likelihood grossly exaggerated.
But even if you agree that Italy’s feared numbers are exaggerations, the fact that no irregular migrant or asylum seeker has apparently yet left Libya by sea is not at all surprising. Libya is in chaos and few people are likely to try to depart the country by sea until the level of violence begins to diminish. Libya has (or had) a functioning network of human traffickers and they will be ready to begin exploiting the chaos and to take advantage of desperate people seeking to flee at some point in the future. If Gaddafi manages to remain in power, once he is no longer concerned with his personal survival, his thoughts will at some point turn to revenge. Libya will presumably cease cooperating with Italy on the bi-lateral pushback practice, and Gaddafi will tolerate or encourage irregular migration towards Europe. So Italy is correct in that there is a real threat of significant numbers of migrants and asylum seekers leaving from Libya some time in the near future. The numbers could easily and quickly surpass the 6,000 who have left Tunisia for Lampedusa. Could the numbers surpass 30,000? 30,000 asylum seekers entered Sweden last year (population 9 million – Italy’s population is 50+ million) and Sweden has not received any extraordinary EU assistance as a result. Could the numbers exceed the hundreds of thousands that fled the Balkan wars in the 1990s? Possible, but probably not very likely.