The refugee emergency arising from the eruption of hostilities in Libya is assuming ever greater dimensions. In the worst such incident in recent years, more than 200 refugees from Ivory Coast, Somalia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa drowned last week after their overcrowded boat attempted to sail from Libya to Italy and sank in the Mediterranean Sea. About 25,000 people have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa since the start of this year, mostly from Tunisia.
Though uncontrolled migration presents Italy and its European Union partners with a politically sensitive challenge, north African countries are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Almost 500,000 people have fled across Libyaâ€™s land borders to escape the fighting. Most are in Egypt and Tunisia, but about 60,000 are in Libyaâ€™s four other neighbours â€“ Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of other Africans living and working in Libya may seek in desperation to cross the borders, especially if they fear becoming targets for attack.
This would place too heavy a burden on Egypt and Tunisia. Having overthrown their long-time despots, these two countries have embarked on the daunting task of building a pluralistic political system and the institutions of a civil society while trying to find work for millions of jobless youth. The authorities in Cairo and Tunis will be unable to cope with large numbers of refugees for very long. If western governments want the Arab spring to succeed, it is overwhelmingly in their interests to step up humanitarian aid and funding for the two countries where the momentous political awakening started.
Many EU governments appear to grasp this point, as does the European Commission, which this week offered Tunisia an extra â‚¬140m on top of the planned â‚¬257m for 2011-2013 in return for a bigger effort to control irregular migration. But Europeâ€™s response to the crisis highlights structural flaws in its immigration and asylum policies that predate the Arab awakening.
Managing migration flows in co-operation with Europeâ€™s neighbours is important, but it must be a joint responsibility of all 27 EU countries. For when irregular migrants enter the EU, they often arrive in outlying states such as Greece, Italy, Malta or Poland. Many are later sent home, but some stay. If the EU aspires to a common approach, the task of caring for these migrants should not fall primarily on the countries most exposed to the inflows.