European, African leaders hold migration talks in Paris

France hosts summit with leaders from Europe and Africa to discuss how to stem an influx of refugees to the continent.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets the President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou and Chad President Idriss Deby Itno at the Elysee Palace in Paris
Leaders at the Paris summit will focus on the central Mediterranean route [Thibault Camus/Reuters]

Seven African and European leaders are meeting in the French capital, Paris, to discuss ways to stem the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe from northern Africa.

French President Emmanuel Macron has invited his counterparts from Niger and Chad as well as the head of the Libyan UN-backed government Fayez al-Sarraj, whose countries lie on the main transit route for people fleeing violence and poverty in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish and Italian Prime Ministers Mariano Rajoy and Paulo Gentiloni, and Europe’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini will join Monday’s talks.

Some 125,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean by boat this year, according to UN figures, with the vast majority arriving in Italy before travelling on to other European Union members. An estimated 2,400 have died en route.

Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said the focus of the meeting was on the central Mediterranean route.

“What Macron says is that he wants to see more border controls in Africa, more patrolling of the waters off the coast of Libya and more development aid for Africa,” Butler said.

“His argument is that fewer people would be fleeing poverty if those countries were stabilised and had more opportunities.” 

In July, Macron also proposed – without consulting his allies – the creation of so-called “hot spots” in Africa where asylum seekers fleeing persecution or war could lodge a request to travel to the EU. 

The comment prompted confusion, and his office later downplayed the remark.


Dramatic fall in arrivals

The meeting might also provide insight into why arrivals have plummeted in recent weeks from Libya, the main route into Europe since a separate pathway from Turkey into Greece was shut down in 2016.

The numbers arriving in Italy have fallen by around 50 percent in July and August compared with last year.

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Possible reasons include improved action by the Libyan coastguard, tougher border controls in transit countries inland, as well as Libyan militias joining efforts to stop boats leaving.

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou will tell his European counterparts that the number of migrants passing through the transit town of Agadez in his country has fallen by 80 percent thanks to government efforts, a source in his team told AFP news agency.

Libya has also sought to restrict the work of NGOs operating rescue boats in the Mediterranean that pick up migrants stranded on inflatable dinghies or other unseaworthy crafts.

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Italy has also sought to impose a code of conduct on the NGOs, which face accusations from some critics that their operations have encouraged migrants to attempt the crossing with the knowledge that they will be picked up in an emergency.

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The code has been signed by five of seven NGOs with rescue ships; only the French organisation Doctors Without Borders and Germany’s Sea-Watch have refused as a matter of principle, saying they want to maintain their independence.

The code is set to be approved by all the countries attending Monday’s meeting, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.

Commenting on the drop in arrivals, Al Jazeera’s Butler noted, however, that “there is another side to the story”.

“There are reports from migrants who talk about being turned back at borders by armed groups, without actually identifying them,” she said.

“There have also been reports in British media that perhaps some Italian officials have been paying people smugglers to keep the migrants back in Libya and not send them over.

“The Italian government has denied that claim, but it does raise the question how those figures have so dramatically tumbled.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies