A top EU official warned of an "alarming" number of migrants ready to cross from Libya to Europe, after the Italian coastguard rescued more than 4,000 asylum seekers from Mediterranean waters within 48 hours. European Council President Donald Tusk told the EU parliament that a recent agreement with Turkey might not suffice to stem the migrant flow and member states should thus prepare to help Italy and neighbouring Malta in case of need.
The deal with Ankara virtually blocked the so-called Balkan route, which was taken by up to a million people last year, as migrants crossing to Greece are now to be returned to Turkey. Tusk, however, said that other pathways might open and the so-called Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Southern Italy was already experiencing an increase in numbers.
"The numbers of would-be migrants in Libya are alarming," he said. "This means that we must be prepared to help and show solidarity to Malta and Italy, should they request it." The warning came a day after the Italian coastguard said that 25 migrant boats carrying a total of 4,004 asylum-seekers were intercepted on 11 and 12 April.
Numerous coastguard vessels, redirected commercial cargo ships as well as navy ships and units from other EU navies coordinated by the 28-nation bloc's border agency, Frontex, took part in the rescue operations. A coastguard spokesperson told IBTimes UK that another rubber dinghy with 121 people on board was rescued about 30 miles north of the western Libyan city of Sabratah on 13 April. Most passengers were from sub-Saharan countries, the spokesman said.
More than 20,000 would-be-refugees have already arrived in Italy since the beginning of 2016 and numbers are expected to grow quickly as the milder spring and summer weather improves sea conditions. About double the 150,000 migrants registered in Italy in 2015 are anticipated to reach the country in 2016, as chaos continues to engulf Libya and arrivals in Greece decrease due to the EU-Turkey deal.
The central Mediterranean route is, however, far more dangerous than its eastern equivalent involving a longer stretch of open sea. In 2015 an estimated 2,892 people died between Libyan and Italian shores compared with 805 who lost their lives in the Aegean Sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), despite the latter being crossed by more than five times as many people.
Tusk cautioned that the prolonged instability in Libya made it impossible to find a solution similar to that agreed with Ankara. "It will not be possible to simply copy the solutions we have applied in the Balkans, not least because Libya is not Turkey," he said.
"As regards the Balkan route, we undertook action much too late, which resulted among others in the temporary closure of the borders inside Schengen. This is why our full cooperation with Italy and Malta today, is a condition to avoid this scenario in the future."