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U.N. Envoy: Libya Needs To Find Its Own Solutions To Migrant Crisis

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

So that's the plan for migrants once they reach the EU. What about those still in Libya waiting, hoping to make the crossing? Libya has been in chaos since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and there are now two rival governments violently struggling for power. Bernardino Leon is the special representative and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. He joins me now to discuss the current situation there. He's in neighboring Tunis. Welcome to the program.

BERNARDINO LEON: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: To the best of your knowledge, how many people are in Libya waiting to seek asylum across the Mediterranean, and what kind of conditions are they living in now?

LEON: I have heard that it could be more than half a million people, and we know that there are a lot of human rights abuses - asking for money, asking for prostitution in the case of women - something very common for people transiting through Libya.

CORNISH: Are we kidding ourselves that there's a way to stem this migrant crisis in the Mediterranean while Libya is still in disarray?

LEON: No. I think these migration craft (ph) is another example of how close Libya is to a failed state. We have seen other crisis - the financial collapse, the political collapse, you were mentioning before how the country has competing institutions. But the immigration one, with these modern 1,000 people killed when the two boats sank two weeks ago, is probably the most dramatic one.

CORNISH: I was reading that a U.N. report said that human trafficking was a $170 million business for Libya.

LEON: Well, not for Libya. Mafias make a lot of money.

CORNISH: The mafias meaning the human traffickers?

LEON: Exactly, and the people working with these mafias make a lot of money, but I don't think it is a generalized situation.

CORNISH: But does essentially the disarray in Libya prevent the migrant crisis from being solved - right? - prevent any real progress as long as there's no real access to the smugglers, to their reports?

LEON: Well, it's not exactly that. I think one thing is solving this crisis. This would probably require a complete solution of the Libyan crisis; however, there are some actions that can be done immediately and can help to solve these problems in the future.

CORNISH: And can you just give us some bullet points? What are some of those actions that you think would make a difference?

LEON: Well, I think reinforcing the capabilities of the international community to rescue people in the sea and seeking cooperation in the coast. In many of these cities, there is police. There are some judicial authorities, so it could be also possible that some of these cities and some of these authorities can arrest people. We can help them to do that because these networks usually don't operate only in one country. These are networks operating in different transit countries. These are mainly the three areas where I think we can start moving now.

CORNISH: What is the pushback that you've heard from Libya? What are the concerns there that they've been reluctant? I mean, we've heard comments from Libya's ambassador to the U.N. that they - they're concerned about some of the actions that the U.N. is considering.

LEON: Their main concerns is that this situation is not used by the other camp either to take advantage or to weaken their position, and I think the international community's aware of these concerns. But, at same time, the priority for the international community should be to tell the Libyans very clearly you need to find a solution. Don't ask weapons 'cause the real problem is chaos, is terrorism, financial problems, migration - all these problems are coming from the current chaos.

CORNISH: Bernardino Leon - he's a special representative and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEON: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.