ORLÉANS (FRANCE) (AFP) – France will set up processing centres in Libya for asylum seekers trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean, President Emmanuel Macron announced Thursday.
“The idea is to create hotspots to avoid people taking crazy risks when they are not all eligible for asylum. We’ll go to them,” Macron said during a visit to a refugee shelter in central France, adding the plan would be put in place “this summer”, with or without other EU countries.
But officials in the French presidency cast doubt on whether the centres could be established that quickly, saying the security conditions were “not yet in place”.
Lawless Libya is the main launchpad for African migrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean in rickety boats operated by smugglers that frequently sink.
Macron’s announcement came two days after he brokered talks in Paris between the leaders of the two rival authorities in the war-torn country, who committed to a conditional ceasefire.
Presenting the agreement, Macron said he hoped a return to stability in Libya would check the outflow of migrants.
Since January, more than 100,000 people have made the perilous voyage across the water, according to the International Organization for Migration. Over 2,300 have drowned this year in the attempt.
The vast majority land in Italy — the EU country closest to north Africa — which has complained of a lack of solidarity from its neighbours in dealing with the influx.
Macron said he would send officials from the French asylum bureau to help out in Italy. “I am also ready to send some to Libya,” he said, adding he was ready to go it alone, if necessary.
“Other European countries are very reticent. We’ll try to do it with Europe but we in France will do it,” he insisted.
The plan appeared to take the EU by surprise but European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said the bloc was “open to discussing with any and all of our member states” ways to improve the situation in the Mediterranean.
– ‘No one in the street’ –
France’s new leader has taken an ambivalent line on migration.
During his campaign he was fulsome in his praise of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy but his government has taken a hard line with young migrants sleeping rough on the streets of the northern French port of Calais.
Rights groups have complained that riot police routinely use tear gas and pepper spray to break up the migrants’ camps.
At the shelter in the central city of Orleans, where Macron met two families — one from Syria and another from Republic of Congo — Macron adopted a more compassionate tone.
“We have between 800,000 and a million people in Libya — in camps, hangars, there’s not even a minimum of humanity,” he said.
He also made it his mission to find “dignified” accommodation for those who made it to France.
“I want no one in the streets or in the forests by the end of the year,” he said.
But he also warned that those who were fleeing poverty, rather than war or persecution, faced disappointment.
“No country can take all the economic migrants,” he said.