Libya’s escalating conflict is threatening to turn a manageable repatriation of migrants into a refugee crisis, Europe’s aid chief has warned.

Kristalina Georgieva, Europe’s commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response, said authorities were coping with the more than 200,000 mostly migrant workers who had fled Libya since the uprising against Muammer Gaddafi began more than three weeks ago.

But she saw ominous signs that Libyans were beginning to flee. If that exodus gathered pace, then border camps could be overwhelmed with women and children whose stay would be longer-term than the mostly male migrants, she warned.

That would pose new challenges for aid workers, who have so far dealt almost entirely with the migrants who required only short-term accommodation and medical care.

“We are seeing a small increase in Libyans leaving,” Ms Georgieva said. “If fighting continues for weeks and weeks, we will see Libyan families leave and that is a refugee crisis.”

Most of the migrant workers hail from Egypt and Bangladesh, and are eager to return there. As of Thursday, an international effort to shuttle them home meant that migrants were now being repatriated faster than they were spilling into camps on the Tunisian border.

“We are getting ahead of the problem,” Ms Georgieva told the Financial Times. “This is not a refugee problem but a migrant problem.”

Ms Georgieva’s assessment came as European Union foreign ministers and Nato began discussions about imposing a possible no-fly zone on the country as they try to ratchet up pressure against the Gaddafi regime.

On Friday, European heads of government will gather for a special meeting in Brussels, and are also likely to debate the idea – although several diplomats have cautioned that any move would first require both regional and United Nations support.

The notion of using military force is a sensitive one in the aid community, Ms Georgieva acknowledged. “Ending the fighting is the best way to stop [the humanitarian crisis],” she said. “But there is also the law of unintended consequences.”

As an example of the latter, she noted that the EU’s success in evacuating its citizens from Libya meant that the country was now suffering a shortage of nurses, including those from her native Bulgaria.

The north African uprisings have posed one of the most formidable diplomatic and humanitarian challenges to the EU since the Balkan wars, say policymakers. A failure to contain the situation could lead to a surge of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

“This is our backyard,” Ms Georgieva acknowledged. So far, the EU has contributed more than €60m in relief funds – roughly half the €130m requested by the United Nations. Further pledges are expected at Friday’s meeting. The bloc’s members have also flown dozens of flights to repatriate migrants.

In addition to the potential for a Libyan refugee crisis, Ms Georgieva is also concerned about the plight of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa who are trying to leave the country. Thousands who have exited through Algeria have been arrested and sent to Mali, she said.

On the eastern border, Egypt has refused entry to an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 sub-Saharan Africans – apparently out of prejudice or fear that they will not want to leave.

“They are being strangled at the border,” Ms Georgieva said. “This is like a little bomb. It goes ‘tick, tick, tick’, and we have to handle it.”

Get alerts on World when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article