ROME — Weeks of intensified civil war in Libya have destabilized the country that is the starting point for the bulk of Europe-bound migrants, setting the stage for a humanitarian crisis that analysts say could boost Europe’s nationalist parties in the lead-up to European Union parliamentary elections this week.
Libya is in the midst of its bloodiest period since the ouster of strongman Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. A breakaway rival government led by military officer Khalifa Haftar is threatening Tripoli, the capital, with the goal of toppling the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord. Among the targets of Mr. Haftar’s forces: migrant holding centers on the Libyan coast.
The Libyan crisis is putting a new spotlight on the deep divisions within Europe on how to deal with the crush of migrants seeking to enter the bloc, often via dangerous overland routes or by taking risky voyages across the Mediterranean in barely seaworthy craft.
Matteo Villa, an analyst with the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, said the violence in Libya may provide a boost to Italy’s immigration-skeptic ruling coalition, which has already closed ports to rescue ships and slashing spending on assimilation programs in an effort to discourage the flow of refugees from North Africa.
“Instability in Libya really plays into the hands of anti-migrant forces if they are somehow able to turn their backs on the humanitarian crisis brewing in the country,” Mr. Villa said.
Even before the Haftar offensive that began April 4, European leaders have been especially keen to build up a functioning government in Tripoli that could curb the flow of illegal immigrants from Libya, from the Middle East and from sub-Saharan Africa. EU leaders meeting last week in Brussels issued their latest call for an immediate cease-fire, saying some of the tactics being employed in the fight “may amount to war crimes.”
The U.N. International Organization for Migration said 67,000 Libyans have been driven from their homes in the recent fighting and another 100,000 civilians are living in areas with the most intense violence.
The largest nationalist party in Italy, the League, has warned that the violence in Libya could trigger a massive new wave of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. Italy has deep ties to Libya, a former colony. The Italian government was one of only a handful to maintain diplomatic relations with Gadhafi, who was killed shortly after his 2011 ouster. Italy also has kept a significant commercial and diplomatic presence in Libya.
Citing its own intelligence, Italy warned the European Union that as many as 800,000 refugees were preparing to set shore from Libya to Europe, and it called on fellow EU states to take steps to confront the threat.
“We cannot allow Europe be overrun,” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the League, told the Italian media late last month. “We have to take action now to avoid disaster.”
The government in which Mr. Salvini has emerged as a major voice is reportedly planning to fine private charity and humanitarian groups that charter migrant rescue boats, charging them more than $6,000 for each migrant they deliver to Italian soil.
But analysts said the League’s stance also serves as a scare tactic designed to shore up support from the party’s anti-migrant base ahead of the European vote Thursday through Sunday.
“There is a kind of stability paradox in these situations,” Mr. Villa said. “It’s not true that the more unstable a country becomes, the more refugees it produces. Yes, they have more reason to want to go. But below a certain level, people lack the means and the assets needed to leave.”
Mr. Villa said the claim that 800,000 migrants were preparing to leave was “ridiculous” and estimated that just tens of thousands of refugees were in the country, with few options to move on.
Andrea Torre, director of the MEDI Studies Center, which focuses on migration issues in the Mediterranean, noted that a minority of the migrants who departed Libya for Europe in recent years are Libyan nationals. The United Nations and leading European powers have been eager to restore a functioning government in Tripoli to combat Islamist terrorist groups and exercise some measure of control over illegal migration to Europe.
“We will probably see fewer migrants arriving in Libya from Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and elsewhere,” Mr. Torre said. “Some may try their luck in Morocco or Tunisia or Algeria, but those routes are far less defined, and they all have their own problems. Those already in Libya will have a very difficult time.”
That crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better: In April, Amnesty International said an assault by Mr. Haftar’s forces on the Qasr Ben Ghashir refugee detention center, home to nearly 1,000 asylum seekers, should be investigated as a war crime.
Meanwhile, networks that bring food and medicine to refugees inside Libya have been slowed or shut down by the violence. Most aid workers have been forced to flee, and Mr. Villa said at least two ships Italy donated to the Libyan coast guard for the purpose of patrolling the coastline for unsafe migrant ships have been commandeered by the government for the war effort.
Despite all that, the political benefits of the topic are clear, said Maria Rossi, co-director of the Rome polling company Opinioni. Ms. Rossi said despite reports on the humanitarian problems, warnings of migrant threats remain a galvanizing political issue inside Italy.
“Many League supporters blame migrants for the country’s economic problems, for crime rates and for high unemployment levels,” Ms. Rossi said. She said the problems could be similar in other parts of Europe where nationalist sentiment is on the rise.
The League’s rapid rise to prominence in Italy has been built on its skepticism of increased immigration, the strain it puts on social services and government funds, and the feeling that other countries in the EU were not sharing the burden of accepting the new arrivals.
“I’m sorry to say it, but Italy has too many of its own problems to spend money on Africans or Muslims who come here,” said 29-year-old Italo Ricci, who works for Rome’s public transport system. “They should look out for themselves or look for help somewhere else.”
In the last round of elections for European Parliament five years ago, the League won just 6% of the vote in Italy, earning five of Italy’s 73 seats in the legislature.
Opinioni’s latest poll predicts the party will win more than a third of the vote this month, 10 points more than its nearest rival. If the poll is accurate, that would give the League around 25 of the country’s 76 seats, making it one of the largest single blocs in what will be a 751-member parliament.
Sandro d’Alessi, 49, who operates the cash register at a coffee bar, illustrates why the League will likely do well later this month.
“I talk to people all day, and I think that people are getting tired of the way politicians misspend our money on programs that don’t help Italians,” Mr. d’Alessi said.
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