Violent clashes at a refugee camp for migrants in Greece and the looming spectre of another tragedy in Libya this week served as potent reminders that European policy chiefs will be grappling with the continent’s migration crisis for many years to come.
On Sunday in Greece, a woman was killed after a fire broke out at the sprawling and overcrowded Moria camp on Lesbos island, where violent clashes between asylum seekers and police escalated and left more than a dozen people injured.
Some 1,400km away in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, the United Nations declared a warning that migrants were being forced back into the Tajoura detention centre. This came three months after an airstrike aimed at the city had claimed dozens of lives.
Speaking at a press conference alongside United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on Wednesday, Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said the “crisis in the Mediterranean” was at the “very core of our concerns”.
Di Maio described a “special focus on Libya … an essential dossier as far as we’re concerned”. Italian fears went far beyond migration, he said, with the North African country’s proximity to Sicily offering up a “possible terrorist risk”.
Libya has long been a transit route for sub-Saharan African migrants seeking to build new lives in the European Union, but people flows grew ever-larger as the country spiralled into chaos after president Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and death in 2011.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN agency, is also concerned. On July 2, a detention centre on a military base at Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli, the capital, was hit in a double military strike that left 53 detainees dead and more than 130 others injured.
Three months later, and Tajoura remains open, with Libya’s coastguard apprehending migrants aboard vessels on the Mediterranean, returning them to land and locking them up in the bombed-out facility, the IOM says.
After the disaster, Libyan officials promised to shutter Tajoura and two other lockups, but “this plan needs to be transformed immediately into action to avoid further tragedies like Tajoura from recurring,” said Federico Soda, IOM mission chief in Libya.
Soda also issued an “urgent call for the end of arbitrary detention in Libya, in a gradual orderly manner, that guarantees the safety of all detainees.” The IOM says that some migrants can be supported in Libya’s towns and cities while their status is determined.
Officials were also raising concerns in Greece, where the Moria camp has ballooned into the size of a small town of some 12,000 people, four times its capacity, and where outbreaks of rioting are a common occurrence.
It remains unclear what started the fire that sent smoke billowing above Moria’s collection of flimsy tents and containers on Sunday, but the blaze added to what Lefteris Economou, Greece’s deputy citizen’s protection minister, called a “national crisis”.
On Monday, the Greek government announced plans to deport 10,000 migrants by the end of 2020 and to tighten the country’s borders following a spike in the numbers of migrants arriving and requesting asylum in August.
On October 8, EU interior ministers are set to discuss plans to “fast-track” arriving asylum seekers at talks in Luxembourg. The scheme would involve screening and returns of rejected migrants, while those granted asylum could be distributed throughout the Euro-bloc.
The talks are aimed at resolving tensions, which have seen Italy and Malta row with neighbours over whether they were obliged to admit migrants picked up by humanitarian ships. The deaths in Greece and Libya show that these talks cannot come soon enough.