By Patrick Wintour
Fears that overlapping European and Middle Eastern peace initiatives for Libya are hampering the new UN special envoy are to be aired this week at a special conference convened by the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
The conference on Thursday, due to be attended by the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is likely to swing behind a plan to restart political talks, including making changes to a December 2015 peace deal that has so far failed to unite warring factions in the east and west of the country.
The US had largely dropped out of the Libyan crisis since Donald Trump took power in January.
It follows a run of peace initiatives in recent months that have involved conferences in Cairo, Brazzaville and Dubai. Meanwhile, a Libyan peace plan launched by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, infuriated Italy for the similarities to its plan. The Netherlands has also made efforts to bring the Libyan parties together.
Ghassan Salamé, the UN Libya envoy, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa on Friday: “There are six or seven different operations in front of Libyans’ eyes. Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
At the weekend, the senior Italian parliamentarian Giuseppe Esposito also expressed serious concerns, fearing that France and the UK were interfering in Italian efforts to solve the migration crisis. The UK Foreign Office said it was working in close coordination with Italy and the upcoming London meeting was designed to support Salamé.
The meeting is also likely to discuss a plan from the Italian interior minister, Marco Minniti, for NGOs and UN regulators to recruit Libyans to run the heavily criticised refugee detention camps.
Minitti said: “It is a plan that depends on security, but it is a way to improve the camps.”
Salamé proposed sending 200 UN peacekeepers to Libya to bolster the organisation’s presence, while the Libyan interior ministry has already agreed to close seven of the 30 camps.
The NGO plan is part of a wider proposal, still in gestation, to find €6bn (£5.45bn) for regulating the flow of people from Africa to Europe.
But the demand for camps remains high as efforts to relocate migrants back to their countries of origin are slow, and the number of people making the crossing from Libya to Italy is declining, partly due to former traffickers, or militia members in towns such as Sabratha, west of Tripoli, abandoning human smuggling.
The Italian ambassador to Libya, Giuseppe Perrone, visited Sabratha this week to praise the mayor, Hassen Dhawadi, for the clampdown on people traffickers. Reports of bribes to the Anas al-Dabbashi brigade in the town have been strongly denied.
In the past nine weeks, the number of people reaching Italian shores from Libya has fallen by more than 80%, compared with the same period last year. In the first week of September, 862 arrived, down 17% from the previous week. If this trend continued through the rest of the month, a fall of nearly three-quarters on the same month in 2016 could be recorded.
Nevertheless, the state of the detention camps has been repeatedly criticised, most recently by Dr Joanne Liu, the international president of Médecins Sans Frontières.
After visiting centres in Tripoli, she said the camps were filthy and chaotic, and there were many reports of rapes, beatings and other abuses. Liu claimed that the EU was complicit by providing €46m to the Libyan coastguard for intercepting refugees at sea, and sending them back to Libyan detention camps.
Patrick Wintour – Diplomatic editor