Europe divided over Italy`s warnings of Libya exodus

Italy says it could not be left to handle alone any mass exodus from Libya.

Last Updated: Feb 25, 2011, 10:40 AM IST

Brussels: Italy clamoured for help on Thursday to face a looming Libya exodus of unparalleled proportions but failed to bring all its EU partners onside despite warning of a potential tsunami of up to 1.5 million migrants and refugees.

"This is not a good sign for Europe," said Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni at the close of talks with his 26 European Union counterparts, saying some nations, who he refused to name, had withheld support.

"We cannot be left alone," Maroni said as he went into tough talks pleading for assistance in dealing with what he termed "an invasion of one million, 1.5 million that would bring any country to its knees".

But nations from northern and western Europe were less than keen, said a diplomat from one of the countries who asked anonymity.

"They`re crying wolf!," the source said.

Adding weight to Rome`s pleas, the head of the Italian Catholic Church, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, urged "all Europe" to come together to face the exodus.

Along with the thousands of Libyans fleeing unrest, between 750,000 and 1.5 million would-be economic migrants from Africa are estimated holed up in Libya, according to the EU`s border-protection agency, Frontex.

Angry Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who last year agreed with Rome to take in boat people intercepted by the Italian Navy, has warned he may open the floodgates, reneging on an understanding with the EU.

"What`s happening in the Mediterranean is a problem for Europe and for the world," Maroni added. "We have never seen an emergency of this scale."

Italy wanted an emergency solidarity fund to fly to the rescue of Mediterranean nations, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, likely to bear the brunt of the unrest.

It also called for "a common asylum policy" and "for all European countries to share the burden of costs”.

But there was little taste for burden-sharing as the talks began.

"We are very worried about the situation in Libya," said European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom at the close of talks.

"Today we don`t see any boats from Libya," she said. "Today we don`t know what will happen."

She called for assistance to Tunisia and Egypt where thousands of Libyans have fled to safety from Gaddafi’s brutal crackdown on protesters. Helping the refugees would deflect a human tidal wave to Europe.

Sweden`s Migration and Asylum Minister Tobias Billstrom said his country last year took in 32,000 asylum-seekers for a population of nine million without begging for help, while Italy, a nation of 53 million, screamed for aid after 5,000 Tunisians washed up on its island of Lampedusa earlier this month.

If developments in Libya turn to civil war "then we`ll have a huge amount of people leaving," he said. "But we`re not there yet."

Austria and Germany likewise played down Italy`s problems on tiny Lampedusa, where 6,000 residents were swamped by the sudden arrival of thousands of refugees from Tunisia, following the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"There`s no refugee influx right now. Let`s not provoke one by talking about it," said German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

EU border management agency Frontex says the flood has now eased to a trickle.

The European Commission, the EU`s executive arm, last year offered Tripoli up to EUR 50 million (USD 70 million) in aid to combat irregular migration but no money has been disbursed so far.

However, the current upheaval marks a new test for EU solidarity on migration flows after years of unresolved debate.

Many EU states, notably Britain and the Scandinavians, refuse all burden-sharing -- for example by examining requests by asylum-seekers in Greece to be reunited with family in Britain.

Brussels wants Frontex to have a budget big enough to buy boats, helicopters and planes. But EU members such as Germany and the Nordic countries have refused the funding.

Compared to the 400,000 officers manning Europe`s porous borders, Frontex can mobilise no more than 1,000 men at any one time. It has 25 helicopters, 25 fixed-wing aircraft and 100 vessels -- all on loan.

Following the Lampedusa refugee crisis, a new mission titled Hermes was sent in comprising about 30 people, a plane and several ships.

Bureau Report