EU May Send Fleet to Libya's Coast to Stop Shifting Refugee Flow

  • Flotilla of 5 warships is limited to international waters now
  • EU probes reports of new migrant shipwreck off coast of Egypt

The European Union said it was considering sending a fleet closer to Libya’s coast amid concern that human traffickers will switch to the central Mediterranean Sea to haul refugees toward Europe.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

As migration slows in the eastern Mediterranean, EU foreign ministers may give greater powers to a five-warship fleet now patrolling international waters roughly 22 kilometers (14 miles) from Libya’s shore.

“We’ll talk about the mission we already have, to what extent we can expand that to also reduce illegal migration into Europe,” Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told reporters Monday at an EU meeting in Luxembourg.

Libya’s government-in-the-making would have to approve the wider EU operation, part of efforts to dam up migration routes from the Middle East and northern Africa after more than 1 million people made it to Europe last year.

The debate came amid initial reports of a new migrant shipwreck off the coast of Egypt, far from the European patrol zone. Many were feared drowned Sunday after a boat carrying as many as 400 mainly Somali migrants sank en route to Italy, a Somali diplomat told the BBC.

8,000 Saved

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni spoke of “a tragedy in the Mediterranean,” but didn’t have details.

Border closures across southeastern Europe and an EU-Turkey deal to send back illegal migrants cut the flow of people across the Aegean Sea to Greece to 2,016 so far in April, according to United Nations data.

During the same period, traffic picked up across the central Mediterranean, with 5,666 crossing to Italy. EU President Donald Tusk last week warned of “alarming” numbers poised in Libya to head for Europe.

Foreign ministers hold a teleconference with Libya’s prime minister tonight. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he expects EU military planners to be given the go-ahead to map out the expanded mission.

The current mission has bottled up smugglers inside Libyan waters and saved more than 8,000 people since it debuted last June, the EU says. The bloc will now “look for ways in which that can be made even more effective,” David Lidington, British European affairs minister, said.

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