BRUSSELS (Reuters) – One of the countries on the front line has urged the European Union to sharply increase funding for the United Nations to send migrants stranded in Libya back to their homelands further south in Africa.
Malta, which currently chairs the EU meeting, submitted a proposal to the bloc’s 27 other member states in early February, which was seen by Reuters on Tuesday.
Malta and Italy bear most of the immediate burden of processing African migrants leaving lawless Libya by boat in often dangerous conditions.
Some 1.6 million refugees and migrants reached Europe via the Mediterranean Sea between 2014 and 2016, including many who crossed east between Turkey and Greece.
Malta’s proposal comes ahead of a summit of 28 EU leaders next week that will consider putting into practice an agreement on new measures to curb African migration.
The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are between 700,000 and 1 million migrants in Libya. It aims to help 7,000 people stranded there return home this year, more than double the 2016 returns program.
The European Union has pledged more funding for this. In December, Brussels, Berlin and Rome committed a total of 100 million euros over three years to the IOM to support the voluntary return and reintegration of African migrants.
With Libya now the main focus, the EU Africa Trust Fund has provided initial funding of 12 million euros to meet the current target of repatriating around 5,000 people from Libya this year as part of the IOM’s overall target of around 7,000 repatriations.
But Malta’s plan calls for “a substantial increase in the number of migrants accepted for voluntary return to their countries of origin, beyond the current target of 5,000.” It also said: “Funding should be substantially increased.”
At a meeting in Malta earlier this month, the EU pledged support to the UN-backed Libyan government to help stabilize and curb coastal migration.
If the strategy succeeds, their exit from Europe will be made more difficult, with the struggling Tripoli government fearing a further increase in migrant numbers from Libya and asking the EU to strengthen Libya’s southern border and help people return home.
So far this year, 589 migrants have been repatriated on chartered flights from Tripoli under the IOM scheme, mainly to Senegal and Nigeria. For the most vulnerable, it provides extra help getting them back into their homes.