The ongoing crisis of Syrian refugees in the Balkans, Greece, and Hungary in recent weeks has obscured and bumped from the headlines Europe’s greatest immigration challenge — which is coming from Libya.

The problem of people fleeing Syria is bound to subside, both because Russia’s new presence along the Mediterranean coast will bar or discourage departure, and because Germany and the pope have encouraged European countries to welcome the refugees. The “allocation” of immigrants will ebb and the ones already on the old continent will be settled.

Refugees fleeing the unrest queue up at the Libya-Tunisia border

But there has been no progress in Libya, the place from which hundreds of millions of poor Africans might want to depart and attempt to land in rich Europe. In contrast, Syria might “export” only a tiny fraction of those numbers. In Libya, it’s impossible to think that any European country could successfully try to put boots on the ground, as the Russians are doing in Syria. Nor is it possible to think of settling millions (not thousands, like those from Syria so far) of Africans on the old continent. It would cripple any country, and it would forever impoverish and bleed to death Africa by depriving the region of its most daring, entrepreneurial, and intelligent people.

The flow of refugees from Libya in recent days has dwindled only because of the start of bad autumn weather. But it is set to start over in the spring, putting the weakening economic and social fabric of Italy and Europe under stress again.

A big plan to help Africa is long overdue, and it should be quickly sought because with or without the open wound of Libya, poverty, duress, and wars create hordes of poor willing to risk anything to have a better life or exact revenge for the lack of it. Because of this, allowing Libya to remain as it is only makes matters worse.

Now, it is an open battlefield with dozens of militias loosely grouped around two power centers, Tripoli in the west and Tobruk in the east. As such, Libya is the ideal ground for grooming Islamic State or al-Qaeda terrorists and criminal enterprises from Africa, Asia, and Europe.

There is no other solution: Libya has to be partitioned. Egypt has been suggesting it would be eager to take on eastern Libya, and the country should have it. Libya’s oil would replenish Egypt’s empty coffers, and in return it would reduce the Libyan problem by half.

The rest could remain independent, but Algeria and Tunisia could be called in to safeguard local security, as both have a keen interest in stopping the spread of Muslim radicalism that is coming out of Tripolitania.

Italy, with its century’s worth of local intelligence, could be poised to broker this deal. This would also solve an old and unspoken issue: Italian colonization of Libya was carved out at the beginning of the last century almost as a buffer between the two large African colonial powers, France, master of Algeria and Tunisia, and Britain, ruler of Egypt.

Extensive French and Anglo-American interests remain in the two areas, and a pure division of Libya would exclude Italy from the continent while forcing it to passively guard the southern front of Europe. On the other hand, if Italy manages to spearhead this partition, it would give Italy a role in the new Africa and would also help it find a foreign policy drive, after more than 20 years of virtual absence.

The real question is, can Italy do it? This is not just a technical issue. Italy has plenty of capable officers in and out of Libya who could manage this. The issue is whether Italy has the political drive and the subtle international skill for it. Premier Matteo Renzi and his foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, have shown a keener interest in foreign politics, although they blundered a few times over comparatively minor issues.

In any case, if Italy can’t solve the problem of Libya, by next spring the wave of African refugees could engulf the peninsula, also drawing blame from the rest of Europe. This would add to the fragility of the country, and it could create further pressure on the EU and its weakening euro.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Francesco Sisci

Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He works for the Catholic research center

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