VALLETTA/ROME Italy and the European Union have pledged to finance migrant camps in Libya run by the U.N.-backed government, an agreement showed on Friday, as part of a wider European Union drive to stem immigration from Africa.
The agreement, signed by Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj on Thursday and seen by Reuters on Friday, says Rome will also provide training and equipment to fight people smuggling.
But the U.N. refugee agency said running camps where migrants and refugees are detained in Libya would mean forcing them to live in poor conditions and would put them further risk of abuse.
EU leaders are meeting in Malta on Friday to give political backing to new efforts by the bloc can stop migrants before they board flimsy boats on the Libyan coast and set out across the Mediterranean for Europe. In 2016, some 4,500 are estimated to have perished attempting to cross from North Africa to Italy.
The Italian-Libyan agreement, which was endorsed by all EU leaders on Friday, says the camps - some already existing - where migrants would stay "until they are deported or they voluntary agree to return to their country of origin" would be managed by the Libyan Interior Ministry.
Italy would provide training to camp personnel, medicine and medical supplies for the migrants, it said. Furthermore, Italy promises broad support to the Seraj government, including for Tripoli's "security and military institutions".
The Seraj government is struggling to establish control amid the chaos that followed the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. People smugglers operate with impunity and the route across the Mediterranean is now the main gateway to Europe, with some 181,000 arrivals last year.
But humanitarian groups reject efforts to stop migrants in Libya, where - according to a U.N. report last December - they suffer consistent and widespread abuse, including arbitrary detention, forced labour, rape and torture.
"Running camps in Libya would mean keeping migrants in inhumane conditions and putting them further at risk," Carlotta Sami, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, told Reuters.
"Libya is not a safe place - there is no way this can be considered a humane approach to migration management," said Arjan Hehenkamp of Doctors without Borders.
The bloc is also looking at whether it could give funding to the U.N. refugee and migration agencies - UNHCR and IOM - to improve conditions in such sites in Libya.
The idea is to screen migrants and identify those who qualify for refugee status before they board boats, or to establish that those intercepted in the sea - or plucked from the water - could be returned to Libya rather than brought to Italy as happens now.
"Given the current context, it is not appropriate to consider Libya a safe third country, nor to establish extraterritorial processing of asylum-seekers in North Africa," UNHCR and IOM said in a joint statement this week.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)