8 June 2017

Libya: Germany's Sigmar Gabriel Promises Millions On Surprise Visit to Libya

The German foreign minister has announced extra aid to improve conditions at refugee camps. He warned of growing instability and urged warring parties to overcome their differences and support the UN-backed government.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on Wednesday made a surprise visit to Libya to announce a new tranche of aid to the conflict-ridden country.

Berlin will provide 3.5 million euros ($3.9 million) to Libyan authorities to improve conditions at refugee camps in the North African country, Gabriel said. The money is expected to complement relief funds provided by Germany aimed at easing Europe's migration crisis.

"It is, therefore, our goal, together with the Libyans, to resist the instability that has arisen from the absence of established structures," Gabriel said. "Concrete progress is urgently needed."

Deadly journey

Since the closure of the so-called Balkan route at the beginning of 2016, more people have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea and reach Europe, often leaving from Libya.

Nearly 70,000 migrants, many of them fleeing conflict and extreme poverty in the Middle East and Africa, have made the perilous journey so far this year, of which 80 percent arrived in Italy, according to data provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

European authorities have attempted to impede irregular migration to the bloc by warning would-be migrants about the dangers of the route across the Mediterranean. More than 1,600 migrants have died in 2017 attempting the voyage, IOM reported.

Fleeing war and poverty

In late 2014, with the war in Syria approaching its fourth year and Islamic State making gains in the north of the country, the exodus of Syrians intensified. At the same time, others were fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Niger and Kosovo.

Seeking refuge over the border

Vast numbers of Syrian refugees had been gathering in border-town camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan since 2011. By 2015, with the camps full to bursting and residents often unable to find work or educate their children, more and more people decided to seek asylum further afield.

A long journey on foot

In 2015 an estimated 1.5 million people made their way on foot from Greece towards western Europe via the "Balkan route". The Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel within much of the EU, was called into question as refugees headed towards the wealthier European nations.

Desperate sea crossings

Tens of thousands of refugees were also attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats. In April 2015, 800 people of various nationalities drowned when a boat traveling from Libya capsized off the Italian coast. This was to be just one of many similar tragedies - by the end of the year, nearly 4,000 refugees were reported to have died attempting the crossing.

Pressure on the borders

Countries along the EU's external border struggled to cope with the sheer number of arrivals. Fences were erected in Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia and Austria. Asylum laws were tightened and several Schengen area countries introduced temporary border controls.

Closing the open door

Critics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open-door" refugee policy claimed it had made the situation worse by encouraging more people to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe. By September 2016, Germany had also introduced temporary checks on its border with Austria.

Striking a deal with Turkey

In early 2016, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement under which refugees arriving in Greece could be sent back to Turkey. The deal has been criticised by human rights groups and came under new strain following a vote by the European Parliament in November to freeze talks on Turkey's potential accession to the EU.

No end in sight

With anti-immigration sentiment in Europe growing, governments are still struggling to reach a consensus on how to handle the continuing refugee crisis. Attempts to introduce quotas for the distribution of refugees among EU member states have largely failed. Conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere show no signs coming to an end, and the death toll from refugee sea crossings is on the rise.

Calls to overcome rivalry

Gabriel called on rival Libyan authorities to overcome their differences through dialogue. Libya has three rival governments, of which only one is recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government.

Germany's Gabriel said conflicting parties should abide by UN-brokered agreements signed in 2015, which effectively established the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

Libya plunged into chaos in 2011, when anti-government protesters demanded dictator Moammar Gadhafi to step down, prompting a brutal crackdown by regime forces. NATO responded by leading an operation against the government.

Within two weeks of Gadhafi's assassination at the hands of Libyan rebels, NATO ended its intervention.

Since then, warring parties have attempted to claim power in the North African country, leading to instability and the eventual rise of the Islamic State militant group in 2014.

Author: Matt Zuvela

ls/sms (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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