December 4, 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron has announced that the European Union and African Union will launch “concrete military and policing action” to rescue African migrants enslaved in Libya and arrest human traffickers.
The development came as the EU pledged a Marshall Plan for Africa of €44 billion at a summit dominated by outrage over slave auctions in Libya of migrants sold “like goats”.
The furore over illicit slave auctions, highlighted in a recent CNN report, was thrust to the top of the agenda among the 83 heads of state from the EU and Africa gathered in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, for a two-day summit.
Speaking after talks on Wednesday night, Mr Macron said that the leaders of Libya, France, Germany, Chad, Niger and other countries along who the UN, had “decided on an extreme emergency operation to evacuate from Libya those who want to be”.
The evacuations would start “in the coming days or weeks”.
“Libya has reaffirmed its agreement to identify camps where scenes of barbarity have been identified,” he went on. “President Sarraj has given his green light for access to be assured.”
The countries present agreed to set up “close cooperation with an operational task force bringing together police and intelligence services…to dismantle networks and their funding and to arrest people traffickers,” he said, adding that the smugglers had close links to terror groups in the area.
Participants also agreed to freeze the assets of identified traffickers, while the AU will set up a commission of inquiry.
In an interview with France 24, Mr Macron said he was not suggesting sending foreign troops to Libya, adding: “It’s not about declaring war, Libya is a state in political transition … but there’s reinforced police action that needs to be done to dismantle those networks”.
The plan could see up to 15,000 people flown out of Libya. The Libyan government on Wednesday night agreed to allow the migrants to be evacuated, Mr Macron said.
Under the plan, source countries will have to come to a holding centre in Tripoli and take back their citizens. Migrants without documentation would be held until their case is resolved.
In his opening remarks, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that the bloc had developed “an external investment plan for Africa” to stump up €44 billion (£39bn) by 2020, notably in growth sectors like renewable energy. The Commission has earmarked €4.1bn for the so-called Juncker plan for Africa, with, it is hoped, the rest coming from private investors.
Mr Juncker said that the way to tackle mass migration was to stimulate massive economic growth in Africa, a continent where the population “will increase by 1.3 billion inhabitants by 2050 and more than 50 per cent of Africa’s population will be young”.
The CNN footage showed youths from Niger and other sub-Saharan countries being sold to buyers for about $400 (£300) at undisclosed locations in Libya.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has flown 10,000 migrants home from Libya this year under a voluntary repatriation plan. Mr Macron said the EU, UA and UN had agreed to bolster support for the OIM to “help Africans who so wish to return to their countries of origin”.
The IOM said that a big increase in voluntary repatriation flights from Libya was expected as a result of “moral outrage around the world” prompted by the video of the slave market.
In Wednesday’s talks, leaders also decided to “set up a proactive communication campaign destined for Africans to denounce human trafficking in Libya and to discourage those who fall for the sirens of smugglers promising the earth”.
The UN, at France’s request, will hold a special Security Council session on the stranded migrants in Libya this week.
Libya has promised to investigate the slavery claims, and to set up a “transit and departure facility” in Tripoli for people in need of international protection and help in being sent to third countries.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said that all Nigerians stranded in Libya and other parts of the world will be brought home and “rehabilitated,” calling it appalling that “some Nigerians were being sold like goats for few dollars”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the time for action had come. “It’s very important that we simply support Africans to put a stop to illegal migration, so people don’t have to either suffer in horrible camps in Libya or are even being traded.”
Yet some have pointedly accused the EU of hypocrisy over the crisis, notably by helping the Libyan coastguard to intercept and return Europe-bound migrants to an essentially lawless state.
Earlier this month, the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said the EU’s “policy of assisting the Libyan coastguard to intercept and return migrants in the Mediterranean [is] inhuman”.
Italy, with the support of the EU, has since the summer been training the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats as part of a controversial deal that has resulted in arrivals to Italy falling by nearly 70 per cent since July.
Jean-François Dubost of Amnesty International France said: “The EU funds Libyan coast guards who we know full well – and the UN has been able to verify this – participate in this [human] trafficking”.
African governments began recalling diplomats from Tripoli after the slavery reports. Protests erupted in France, Senegal and Benin. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara called for Libyan slave traders to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.
But experts say African leaders had themselves turned a blind eye to the slave auctions until the media high-profile coverage prompted outrage.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, president of the African Union Commission, said “responsibility is shared” while European Council president Donald Tusk warned: “We… cannot accept the narrative that pits Africa and Europe against each other. The worst we can do is to start the blame game.”
Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, said: “After a decade of uncoordinated political actions and investments, the EU needs to become the engine of a profound change in the social and economic conditions of Africa.”
Stopping the exodus is crucial for Italy because it has borne the brunt of the crisis. Last year, 181,000 migrants and refugees managed to reach Italy after being rescued in the Mediterranean. The figure so far this year is 116,000. More than 3,000 people have died attempting the crossing in 2017.