African and European leaders agree action plan on migration crisis

Seven African and European leaders have met in Paris to try to build a new relationship aimed at cutting migration into Europe from northern Africa in return for aid.

On Monday, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Spain agreed to help Chad and Niger with border control to stem the flow of migrants through Libya and across the Mediterranean.

The EU has struggled to agree a coherent solution to the influx of people fleeing war, poverty and political upheaval in the Middle East and Africa, and the crisis is testing cooperation between member states.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the meeting, said afterwards that the issue was a “problem that concerns us all and that cannot be solved without us all”.

Sitting alongside the leaders of the six other countries, Macron added that the migration crisis was a “challenge for the European Union and the African Union” that needed to be approached with “solidarity, humanity and efficiency”.

He added the seven leaders had agreed a “short-term plan of action” that would address as a matter of urgency the people-smugglers who he said had turned the Mediterranean into a “cemetery”.

The mini-summit in Paris provided a chance for the major European powers to coordinate their Libyan policy after individual countries, especially France and Italy, started to mount separate initiatives to create political unity in Libya.

Macron also wants the EU to offer an extra €60m (£56m) to help African countries deal with asylum seekers who have returned from Europe and to prevent further migration flows.

Although the number of people reaching Italy from Libya by sea dropped by nearly 70% in July and August compared with the same months last year, it is felt the numbers could easily rise again without further measures.

There has been a small increase in people travelling from Morocco to Spain – a point of concern for the Spanish government, which is dealing with sensitive public opinion in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the country this month.

The fall in the number of refugees leaving Libya raises questions about the management of the makeshift camps where those still seeking to reach Europe are being held, either before attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing or after being turned back by the Libyan coastguard.

Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of Libya’s UN-backed government, used the meeting to ask for more support to fight trafficking and monitor his country’s southern border.

Idriss Déby Itno, the president of Chad, said “poverty and a lack of education” were the main drivers of migration to Europe. “These have to be taken into account by all the European Union and African Union countries,” he added.

The four European leaders attending the summit were the Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and Macron.

The UK – despite leading the military engagement that led to the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the subsequent power vacuum – was not among the attendees, a possible sign of Britain’s gradual marginalisation before Brexit.

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, visited Tripoli last week, but the bulk of the diplomatic work on reaching a political solution in Libya has been left to the former colonial power, Italy, or to France.

The political crisis in Italy over migration continues, with clashes at the weekend in Rome between migrants and police over living conditions.

The total number of people who reached Italy from Africa between January and 23 August this year was 98,072, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency – a fall of only 7,000 from the same period last year.

But this small drop masks a collapse of more than 70% in the number of migrants reaching Italy in July and August. The IOM figures show that 14,177 African migrants reached Italy by sea between 1 July and 20 August, compared with 45,000 over the same period last year. The figures for August alone are likely to show a fall of more than 75% on August 2016.

But the IOM estimates the number of people reaching Spain from Africa is starting to increase, exceeding 8,300 by 9 August, higher than the total number to reach Spain during the whole of 2016.

Although the Italian government is taking some credit for the sudden decline in the number of people reaching its shores, the fall appears to precede implementation of its tough measures, which include a restrictive code of conduct for NGO ships patrolling outside Libyan coastal waters, as well as stronger efforts by the Libyan coastguard to turn back the smugglers’ rafts. It is possible that changes in the power dynamics in key Libyan ports had already made it more difficult for the smuggling networks to operate.

The Italian government has been providing help to the political leadership in key ports such as Sabratha, west of Tripoli, and this in turn could be seen as an incentive to local militia to forgo people-smuggling in return for western grants.

But the decline in numbers reaching Europe may lead to tens of thousands becoming stranded in camps in north Africa, with little oversight by the weak Libyan government.

In a further sign that European leaders are starting to look at the root cause of the crisis, the Italian interior minister, Marco Minniti, met 14 Libyan mayors for a second time on Saturday to talk to them about their needs, including funds to ensure there were economic alternatives to human trafficking.