The numbers don’t add up. Senior Libyan officials have stated in a meeting with EU on 15th February that there were around 2 000 000 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya. This was rejected by the EU commission who in their own estimates point to between 500 000 and 750 000 refugees and asylum seekers. But the question is can we trust these numbers? The answer is no. When we look for an actual estimation of refugees and asylum seekers we ought not to take the Libyan numbers for a fact, and neither those of the EU, which we will see.
The Libyan authorities had a vested interest in inflating the number of refugees and asylum seekers as a way to strengthen their negotiating position. The threat of unregulated and massive flow of asylum seekers to Italy by way of Libya has caused many sleepless nights among the politicians in Rom. And Gaddafi has recently threatened EU with unleashing a torrent of migrants if the bloc does not side with him. Libya has consistently for the past years used this ‘migration card’ in its dealings with Italy, and the EU commission. And it is has paid off.
In 2008 Italy and Libya finally signed their friendship agreement, which had been negotiated both during this Italian government and that of Romano Prodi. As part of the agreement Italy through Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi expressed regret at the colonial suffering of Libya. Italy would also as part of the agreement pay reprobation of 5 billion USD in the form of a 250 million USD in annual expenditure on building basic infrastructure. But Italy also got what they sought for and what Libya offered – an implementation of the 2007 agreement on the combating of terrorism, trafficking and illegal immigration. As part of this agreement Italian patrol boats with mixed Italian/Libyan crew started patrolling the waters off the coast of Libya, stopping and turning back any boat that appeared to carry illegal migrants bent on reaching Europe. In 2009 and 2010 the number of asylum seekers that used Libya as a transit point dropped significantly. Another part of the agreement called for a satellite system paid for by Italy and the EU to help Libya monitor their land borders.
Libya and EU has since 2004 cooperated on matters of migration and asylum, specifically concerning two programs – one on border control with Niger and another on voluntary repatriation. In November 2008 EU and Libya started negotiating a framework agreement where the regulation of illegal migrants played a significant part. Facing critique in the EU parliament, especially concerning Libyas record on refugee rights. Among other is expelled UNHCR in 2010 and has not, as the only country in North Africa, signed the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, the EU commission nonetheless pressed ahead with a recent visit from commissioners Malmström and Füle.
The EU members that are pushing the commission for a framework agreement are the usual suspects – Italy, Malta, France and Greece. Especially Italy promoted a the view of a mass migration of refugees from Libya to Europe – in this case as a means to create a mechanism for burden sharing among the states. Something that was rejected from, among other, the Swedish minister of migration.
But back to the numbers: 500 000 – 750 000 refugees in Libya, according to EU officials. To put this into perspective the agency who was thrown out from Libya in 2010 for spying, according to Libyan authorities, UNHCR estimated the number of persons of concern (which includes refugees and asylum seekers) to 146 000 – in the whole of North Africa. In 2010 UNHCR had registered around 12000 refugees and asylum seeker in Libya. One does wonder how EU came to the conclusion that there are 500 000 to 750 000 – refugees in Libya?