March 18, 2016 / 12:49 PM / 2 years ago

Exclusive: EU fears new surge of migrants from Libya, plans mission - letter

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini arrives at a European Union leaders summit on migration in Brussels, Belgium, March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Nearly half a million people displaced in Libya could travel to Europe, the EU’s foreign policy chief has told the bloc’s foreign ministers in a letter, urging action to prevent another escalation in the region’s migration crisis.

In the message seen by Reuters, Federica Mogherini warned that people traffickers were operating freely in Libya and said the EU was working on sending a civilian security mission to boost the country’s police, border forces and counter-terrorism operations.

The letter, sent on March 12, came in the build-up to a series of top-level meetings on the migration crisis, including one hosted by Britain in Brussels on Friday with Mogherini and leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Malta.

Diplomats and activists have said they are concerned Libya could be forgotten while the bloc focuses on reaching a deal with Turkey to return refugees from Greece. An effective deal with Turkey may also push traffickers to focus on other routes to smuggle migrants to Europe.

“There are more than 450,000 internally displaced persons and refugees in Libya who could be potential candidates for migration to Europe,” Mogherini wrote.

SANCTIONS, SECURITY OPERATIONS

The European Union is working on helping Libya boost its institutions and on ensuring that a U.N.-backed government, currently based in Tunis, can operate from Tripoli.

The North African oil producer plunged into chaos after rebels ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, backed by British and French air strikes supported by the United States.

London and Paris struggled for months to win broader EU support for sanctions on three Libyan leaders seen as blocking the U.N. process to establish a government in Tripoli.

They finally won support this week to go ahead with preparations to impose asset freezes and travel bans, though the sanctions have yet to be adopted.

Beyond such measures, Mogherini said she was exploring “all possible options” that could help combat people traffickers in Libya. The EU and the United States hope they will be in a position to act quickly if a unity Libyan government is strong enough to call for foreign assistance.

EU defense and foreign affairs ministers will hold a joint meeting focused on Libya on April 18 in Luxembourg to discuss Mogherini’s plans, an EU official said on Friday.

“The possibility of setting up a team of ‘deployable experts’ on migration and security issues ... could be explored,” Mogherini said in her letter.

Last June the EU deployed a military naval force in the central Mediterranean to counter traffickers who last year smuggled nearly 160,000 people from North Africa to southern EU shores, EU data show.

Reporting by Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Heavens

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