As many as 1 million people may cross over from Libya to Italy in the latest wave of migration into Europe, a military advisor working for the United Nations said Wednesday.
Last year, most Europe-bound migrants passed through the Balkans route connecting Turkey to Germany, but since borders there have been shut, the Libya-Italy sea route may become the preferred entry channel once again.
"In Libya there are a million potential migrants," General Paolo Serra, a military advisor for UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler, told a committee at the Italian parliament, according to the ANSA news agency.
Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, European Union President Donald Tusk acknowledged the problem.
"I have in mind here the central Mediterranean route. The numbers of would-be migrants in Libya are alarming. This means that we must be prepared to help and show solidarity to Malta and Italy, should they request it," he said.
Serra said helping conflict-stricken Libya repair its economy would stave off the risk of a mass exodus from the country. The Italian general said oil production in the resource-rich north African nation had fallen from 1.8 million to 300,000 barrels a day.
"Once, people coming from other African countries would stop in Libya, where they would find work [...]. Now there is a huge humanitarian crisis and it is difficult to control movements from sub-Saharan Africa," Serra said.
Referring to the UN-backed national unity government in Libya, which has not yet been sworn in, Serra said: "Without a government in place it is impossible to ensure that laws and human rights are respected and that borders are controlled."
Since the start of the week, more than 4,000 migrants have been rescued between Libya and Sicily, bringing the total sea migration into Italy since January 1 to around 24,000. This is roughly double the figure recorded in the same period of 2015.
However, Italian Interior Ministry sources told the ANSA news agency on Tuesday that hardly any migrants from war-torn Syria had arrived, suggesting there was no significant rerouting from the Balkan region.
But the sources said human traffickers may have decided to ship more people to Italy ahead of the installment of a national unity government in Tripoli, which may lead to stricter border controls, limiting their room for manoeuvre.