Chaos in Libya has led to immediate concern that hundreds of thousands of immigrants could head for Europe. Italy's interior minister, ahead of an EU summit in Brussels, called on Thursday for European help in dealing with a looming "catastrophic humanitarian emergency."
Other Italian officials warned earlier this week of a wave of refugees fleeing violence that Moammar Gadhafi's regime has reportedly visited on its own people. But if Libya collapses into anarchy, some observers have said, it could become an immigration route for far more people from sub-Saharan Africa.
A 'Biblical Exodus'
"We know what to expect when the Libyan national system falls," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Wednesday, according to the UK Telegraph. "A wave of 200,000 to 300,000 immigrants."
"These are estimates, and on the low side," he added. "It is a Biblical exodus. It's a problem that no Italian should underestimate."
Over 5,000 migrants have already sailed from Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa since the Tunisian government fell in January. But post-uprising conditions in Tunisia are mild compared to reports this week from Libya, where Gadhafi's security forces have fired on protesters as well as on guest workers who have now started to flee across the borders into Egypt and Tunisia.
"They're shooting at civilians and children," a shocked Egyptian at Libya's eastern border told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Wednesday.
Gadhafi, Guarding the Gates
Gadhafi in recent years has played up his role as a bulwark against African immigrants to Europe. Italy and Libya began joint naval patrols in 2008 to stop boatloads of illegal or trafficked immigrants from crossing the Mediterranean, and last year Libya signed a €50 billion deal with the European Union to manage its borders as a "transit country" for sub-Saharan Africans.
Italian Foreign Minister Frattini said that some 2.5 million people in Libya -- about a third of the population -- are non-Libyan immigrants who would flee if the government fell.
Gadhafi himself has enjoyed stoking these fears. "Europe will become black," he said last December, if European leaders failed to cooperate with him on immigration controls.
Welcome to Germany?
Amnesty International is calling on other countries to ease the burden on Italy if institutions there are overwhelmed. "Germany, as the largest and most economically powerful country in Europe, has a special responsibility to act," said Monika Lüke, head of Amnesty International in Germany. "Germany has to finally end its obstructionist attitude regarding a common refugee policy in the EU."
Ironically the head of Italy's anti-immigrant Northern League party, Umberto Bossi, made similar statements. "If they come, we will just send them to France and Germany," he said according to the Telegraph.
But German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, on his way to the EU summit in Brussels, which begins on Thursday, warned Thursday morning that rumors of a refugee crisis could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Europe, he told the German broadcaster ZDF, should try to promote stability in North Africa. "People stay in countries with stable democracies," he said.
The two-day meeting in Brussels is a routine summit for EU interior and justice ministers, but the crisis in Libya will force immigration to the top of the agenda.