ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — European Union and African leaders pledged Wednesday to do more to help thousands of migrants stranded in squalid detention centers in Libya, the main jumping-off point for desperate people setting out in unseaworthy boats in search of better lives in Europe.
While youth and development are the main themes of their EU-Africa summit in Ivory Coast, migration is an agenda topping issue, pushed further into the public eye after recent footage of migrants at a slave auction in Libya drew international horror and condemnation.
Opening the meeting in Abidjan, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said the security of Europe and Africa will “depend on our capacity to resolve the crisis in Libya and to bring an end, by all available means, to the inhuman treatment inflicted on migrants.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said that he, leaders from other EU and African countries that include Libya, and the United Nations were discussing going after human traffickers with “concrete, military and police actions on the ground to trace back these networks.”
“It is not a question today of saying that we will declare war,” Macron told French broadcasters France 24 and RFI. “There is a state that is in a political transition, Libya … but there is stronger police action that must be done to dismantle these networks.”
“These smugglers are deeply linked to many terrorist networks and feed, sometimes finance, sometimes are the same as those who make war with us and who kill people every day” in much of northern Africa,” Macron said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “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.”
Already Burkina Faso’s foreign affairs minister has recalled his ambassador from Libya, calling it “unacceptable to have slaves in this 21st century.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said Wednesday 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 in Libya.”
Nigeria’s government said on Twitter that 242 Nigerian migrants returned home from Libya on Tuesday and that more than 4,000 stranded there have “safely retuned home” this year.
Europe has struggled to slow the flow of tens of thousands of Africans making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean through development aid and other means, including funds to tighten border controls. But many Africans feel pressured to make the journey, risking death and abuse, saying high unemployment and climate change leave them little choice.
At least 3,000 drown or go missing annually in attempts to cross the Mediterranean, but with Africa’s population forecast to rise significantly in coming decades many more are likely to take the risk.
To focus efforts, the EU, African Union and United Nations also announced that they would set up a special task force to help protect migrants, notably those detained in conflict-torn Libya.
Details of its work must be fleshed out, but the main aim is to “save and protect lives of migrants and refugees along the routes and in particular inside Libya.”
The task force, which will work closely with Libyan authorities, will also try to speed up the process of returning willing migrants to their home countries and finding new homes for those fleeing violence or conflict and who need international protection.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has urged his European counterparts to work more closely with Africa on tackling migration and security, another issue high on the agenda as the threat of extremism grows in West Africa and elsewhere.
“What counts for us is the capacity to be efficient, pragmatic, in a win-win strategy that serves our mutual interests,” Michel, 41, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
He, Macron and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel — all aged around 40 — are seeking to distance themselves from Europe’s dark colonial past in Africa, and connect with Africa’s young population in the hope that tackling joblessness can help reduce migration.
“I come from a generation that sees Africa as a partner,” Michel said. “There is no more room in our generation for nostalgia about the past or a sense of guilt.”
Macron, 39, also emphasized his youth, referring to himself as the child of “a generation that has never known Africa as a colonized continent.”
African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat warned that without a real change of policy and “without heavy investment in this youth, its education, its training … Africa, and Europe by the way, don’t have much of a future.”
Philippe Sotto in Paris and Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed to this report.