Before Britain helped to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, he said that without a prosperous Libya, the migration of Africans to Europe would be uncontrollable. Today, he seems to have been proved right.
After his killing in 2011, Libya’s oil-rich economy collapsed, to be replaced by a lucrative people-smuggling trade which sends fleets of boats across the Mediterranean carrying illegal migrants who have paid sky-high fares for the ‘privilege’.
So far this year, 85,000 have sailed from Libyan ports to Italy, with 12,000 arriving in the past week.
Many reach the island of Lampedusa, just 70 miles from the African coast, or find their way to Sicily. From there, they are processed and taken to holding camps across Italy from which many disappear and make their way north towards Western Europe.
Migrant arrivals on the Andalusian coast, where British tourists flock to resorts including Malaga and Almeria, have reached 6,500 so far this year.
Some are Algerians in small private boats who want to escape the increasingly strict Islamic regime in their own country. Many others are from sub-Saharan Africa.
It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 are waiting in Morocco to buy a place from the people-smuggling gangs on a rickety craft heading for Spain. There are also fears that Islamic State has a hand in the trafficking and will seek to send terrorists across the sea hidden among the migrants.
Amid growing controversy, many of the boats run into trouble and rely on being brought to Europe by the Spanish coastguard, which is obliged under controversial EU rules to answer SOS signals and rescue any craft more than 12 miles from the African coast.
The opening of this new route has led to several deaths already, with body bags containing drowned migrants being brought ashore in front of groups of tourists.
Incredibly, almost 1.5 million migrants have reached Europe by sea from North Africa and Turkey since the beginning of 2015, the year Germany’s Angela Merkel threw open her nation’s doors to Syrian refugees and many others besides.
The EU is now panicking and divided over how to stop the never-ending flow, begging its 28 member countries to pull together to solve the problem. Yet its response so far has been little short of pitiful.
How telling that a debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday, in which the Prime Minister of Malta was giving an important overview of the crisis, was attended by just 30 MEPs. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was pictured in an almost empty chamber, derisively proclaiming that the Parliament was ‘ridiculous’.
Italy has threatened to close its ports to some migrants’ boats, while Hungary has put up a fiercely efficient perimeter fence to keep them out. This week, Austria sent troops in armoured vehicles to patrol its borders with Italy, while Poland and its fervently Christian Eastern European neighbours are refusing to accept any arrivals, with some leaders raising concerns that many are Muslims.
Even the liberal philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is sounding the alarm, urging the European Union to ‘make it more difficult for Africans to reach the Continent via current routes’.
Britain has come under EU orders to help in an ‘unprecedented’ crisis by taking in more ‘refugees’, even though the United Nations revealed this week that seven in ten of the incomers are not refugees but economic migrants.
One EU chief, Frans Timmermans, warned on Tuesday: ‘This migration issue will not go away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next year, not for two decades. This phenomenon will be with us for generations.’
Ever since the start of 2015, I have watched the crisis grow, and I have talked with migrants arriving by three key sea routes: from Libya to Italy, Turkey to Greece — and a new destination I wrote about in the Mail last week, with thousands from Morocco and Algeria arriving on the Costa del Sol in Spain.
Some migrants I have met were deserving cases fleeing war-torn nations such as Syria. Others, the vast majority fit-looking men under 30, were merely seeking a better life. They told me they expected houses in Europe, education and benefits, too.
The central route across the Mediterranean to Italy has become by far the most popular as people-traffickers in lawless Libya take ruthless control of vulnerable migrants.
It is feared as many as a million people are waiting in searing heat along the North African coast to find a passage to Europe.
Originating from sub-Saharan Africa as well as Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, they have travelled along a network of smuggling routes once used to carry gold, spices and ivory by camel train and which are now utilised by Islamic gangs, who pass their human cargo on to other traders at stopping points in the Sahara.
The gangs put migrants aboard old, unseaworthy boats and abandon them to make their own way towards Europe. The migrants then rely on search-and-rescue operations by the ships of EU nations’ navies — as well as fleets of boats run by international charities — to bring them safely into Italian ports.
This has fuelled criticism that those ships are effectively operating a ‘taxi service’ which plays into the hands of the traffickers, who make millions by charging fares of up to £3,000 a head.
The trade in human misery has been allowed to flourish because of the collapse of a functioning government after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 (brought about with the help of the RAF at the behest of David Cameron).
the most common countries of origin of migrants who have reached Italy by sea this year.
They include Nigeria, described by the BBC as ‘one of the world’s largest oil producers’, and Guinea, which the BBC has called ‘potentially one of Africa’s richest countries’.
In Spain, many arrivals are Algerians. In Almeria, a tourist port on the Andalusian coast where 6,500 migrants have arrived by sea this year, a coastguard told me: ‘The Algerians come by private boat, land on our beaches and disappear. They sail in secretly with cash and jewels . . . if they speak French, they go to Marseilles. If they speak English, they head for the Algerian community in London.’
There are other worries. Islamic State is suspected of slipping in undercover operatives among the migrants.
Last year Rob Wainwright, chief of Europol, the EU law enforcement agency, sent 200 counter-terrorism officers to the Greek islands to spot potential terrorists. They found forged passports which they believe were intended for use by IS ‘sleepers’ planning attacks on cities in Europe.
Then there is the issue of the rescue vessels that ferry thousands of migrants across the Med, largely into Italian ports. Many of those ships are owned or leased by international charities.
According to confidential reports seen by the Financial Times, the EU’s border agency, Frontex, suspects co-operation between charities and the people-smuggling gangs in North Africa.
The reports suggest migrants are given ‘clear indications’ from people-trafficking gangs before departure on the precise direction to follow to reach a charity vessel that will pick them up automatically and deliver them to the European mainland, instead of returning them to Libya.
Whatever the truth, the unity of the EU is facing intense strain because of the refusal of some member states to take ‘quotas’ of migrants, despite the threat of legal action from Brussels.
Ministers in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary have spoken out against the almost unfettered movement of peoples into Europe.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, said recently that mass migration and the resulting multiculturalism would change the essence of his country against the will of him and his people.
‘We will not assist in this folly — following the notion that we will accept all regardless of whether they are economic migrants or not,’ he declared. ‘We must start telling the truth about migration.
‘I do not want to see a Muslim community in Slovakia, several tens of thousands who gradually begin to promote their ideology. We do not want to change the traditions of this country, which are built on centuries of Christian tradition.’
With Italy’s migrant camps nearly full, Austrian soldiers guarding its borders and several nations refusing to take in a soul.